Alison O’’Connor asks, what are the death experiences that we collectively face into over the coming few months?
IT was over a decade ago and the call came in the middle of the night. I woke my aunt and we drove across the city, in the darkness, to the nursing home where a 97-year-old cousin lay dying.
Molly had lived a full life. She had a long career in Aer Lingus— she was employed by the airline at its beginning — and made lifelong friends there.
Because of the staff flight concessions, she was exceptionally well-travelled. She never married.
Even after she went into the nursing home, when she was in her mid-80s, she and “the girls” would go out on Sunday afternoons for lunch. She would get the bus into town regularly.
In her latter years, those trips became too much for her and “the girls” became too frail to go out, so the Sunday afternoon trips were no more.
But if there was one thing that Molly kept up right to the end, it was her faith. We were all fond of her, and she was very generous, but what would send us scuttling were her strong views, not least on religion.
It was all the more appropriate, then, that she got a place in a wonderful, religious-run nursing home: The Sacred Heart Residence, managed by The Little Sisters of the Poor, in Raheny, in Dublin.
After so many long and healthy decades, Molly died of cancer. The hospice services had cared for her in the previous few days.
We had been expecting the call and as we drove over that night, to be with her and say goodbye, we knew that when we got there, she would be, as always, in excellent care.
I can still remember her room and her lying on the bed; the shallowness of her breathing, and how peaceful she seemed. The lighting was soft and there were candles flickering.
My aunt placed her hand on Molly’s, and after a few minutes, she began to say the rosary.
One of my most vivid memories is the almost hysterical panic I felt, just then, that I would not remember the words of the ‘Hail Mary,’ when it came to my turn.
That would not have bothered my aunt, who would simply have filled in for me.
But what about Molly, who would have been appalled and would have wasted no time, if she had been able, in telling me off?; or what about the listening nuns, almost silently coming and going from the room? “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” I said, the words coming from somewhere in the recesses of my memory.
As we said the prayers, the dawn broke. I will never forget the stillness in that room; the peacefulness as we sat there, waiting for Molly to take her last breath.
The nuns, veterans of these death vigils, knew immediately what the alterations in her breathing meant and, after a particular change, they gently told us the end was very near.
Then, just as Molly took what was literally her last breath, we were joined in the room by a number of nuns, who stood around the bed behind us and prayed the prayers of the dead.
I get goosebumps as I remember that moment, and the sense of being a part of something sacred.
It was a beautiful death and one that seemed so apt for Molly, who had been devout for nearly a century.
Despite my lapsed Catholicism, I recognised how the presence, the prayers, and the rituals of those, mostly elderly, nuns had so enriched the experience.
As we had driven over there that night, I would have been very glad of a valid excuse not to witness a death; to have simply turned up afterwards, for the formalities.
But it was a privilege to have witnessed Molly’s death, to have been there with her in her final moments.
My previous experience of a relative dying, and simply no longer existing, was my mother. She died from cancer, after a very long and harrowing illness, when I was 11 years old.
I did not witness her death.
At that time, death just happened and you didn’t talk about it afterwards, or its effects.
That leaves an extraordinary amount to a child’s imagination; all that was unsaid and imagined in the daylight hours was often amplified by the subconscious into a horrible concoction when the time came for sleep.
Clearly, there are all kinds of deaths, from the good to the horrendous, but the one I bore witness to, decades after my mother’s, provided a healing of sorts.
What are the death experiences we collectively face into over the next few months? We already see, in death notices, that funerals are private, ‘due to Government advice,’ or that masses will be held at a later date.
People are invited to leave a message of condolence online.
Something I saw on social media a few days ago brought it into very sharp focus.
An elderly relative was dying in hospital and family were unable to be with her.
They made a plea that if anyone knew anyone working in that particular ward, in that particular hospital, “could they tell her we all love her. Devastated she has none of us to hold her hand in her final hours.”
THERE were some lovely responses to the family’s plea and the message was spread around.
Not long afterwards, they were told that she had died peacefully and they knew she had been well-looked-after.
“The ones we have to thank are all the medics under huge pressure at this time,” they said.
And in a London hospital, a family said goodbye, via videolink, to a husband and father with coronavirus, who was taken off a ventilator.
The world is divided into those who have had experience of the death of a close family member and those who have not.
When you are on the loss side of that invisible fence, you observe those on the other with a slight fascination at how much they don’t yet know or haven’t yet felt.
It’s impossible to mentally compute and absorb how much all of us are going to know and feel over the next few months in relation to death; our brains provide good and necessary protection against such thoughts.
However, the absence of ritual and the strong probability of not being present at the end, to hold a hand and say goodbye, will be unbelievably difficult.
But we do need to prepare ourselves.