I learned a lot about how to die from my mother, and long before I was holding her hand as she drew her last breath.
After nearly two decades as a nurse’s aide, Mom became a hospice home-care worker. She took care of the dying, one patient at a time. She spent eight to 10 hours a day with them, sometimes for many months. As her colleagues told me at her wake, when Janey Schultz showed up, people lived longer.
Regularly, my mother and I talked about what she was learning about the end of life.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for the terminally ill to express last wishes. Some of her patients wanted to eat food made from family recipes. Or smell their favorite perfume one more time on their wrists. One of her patients loved listening to songs that were popular when she fell in love with her husband, who had been gone for nearly two decades.
Many patients wanted to have final conversations with the people in their lives. They wanted to make apologies or welcome others’ confessions; they wanted to reminisce. Often, they hoped to see the best parts of themselves reflected in the loving gaze of others.
My mother never offered specifics, but she would talk about how often those who are dying wanted to share stories from their lives. “It’s as if they want to know that it all mattered,” my mother once told me. “It’s my job to make sure they know it did.”
I learned a lot from listening to my mother’s stories, and I went on to write about issues of death and dying for more than 20 years. I have interviewed so many patients in their last days. I have sat quietly in a corner as loved ones said goodbye, and spent weeks — in one case, a year — with those left to grieve.
The biggest takeaway, for me: There is no substitute for love in a person’s final days — for the dying and for those who are left behind. I’ve witnessed how the gentle presence of family and friends can calm the most frightened hearts and help to relieve suffering. I have seen the grace that can come from knowing you did all that you could in the final days for someone you loved.
The coronavirus has changed how people are allowed to die and how loved ones are permitted to grieve. More than 192,000 people have died of COVID-19 in this country, and except for the tending of heroic health care workers, most of them died alone. Many of them had been separated from everyone they love for weeks before they died. The death toll does not include those who died from other causes but were also isolated from loved ones because of COVID-19 precautions.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the country are now grieving, without any of the usual supports to get them through. No funerals or wakes; no in-person visits from friends, loved ones or spiritual counselors. No memories, either, of how they did all that they could, because we could not let them. They could not care for their loved ones in this time of their greatest need. They could not even hold their hands or whisper in their ears. Anyone who has ever loved another person can surely imagine the weight of this loss.
Last week, we’ve learned that, as early as February, President Donald Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that he knew how dangerous the virus was but played it down in public. We are only learning this now because Woodward waited to tell us until he was on the brink of releasing his new book about Trump. He has 18 interviews on tape.
Trump is now claiming that he was trying to prevent a national panic, which maybe someone somewhere might be willing to believe if he weren’t constantly making up the darkest scenarios of what awaits us if Joe Biden is elected president. “If I don’t win,” Trump tweeted, “America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters.’”
Sure, he just wants us to stay calm.
Journalists are debating whether Woodward should have let the public know when he knew the president was willfully endangering countless Americans. Could Woodward have saved lives? Is it his job to do so? We’ll be discussing this in ethics classes around the country, including in mine.
Perhaps for some of us, in the wake of these revelations, this is just an intellectual exercise. A debate. Lucky, oblivious us.
We can’t un-die people. For every person who has lost a loved one to this deadly virus, the question looms: Could my loved one have lived?