A reader writes:
I may have missed the boat on this discussion, but I wanted to email you something since I may have an interesting perspective. I have been a registered nurse caring for hospice patients for the last two years. During these two years I've had pretty much a front row seat to some of the most amazingly touching things that I've ever seen in my life ; and some of the most horrific. I have held hands of people as they drew their last breath and plenty of times have had to look up from my stethoscope on a patients chest into the eyes of a family member and tell them that their loved one has passed.
I came into this experience as an agnostic who often had leanings to atheism, but while working with hospice patients my faith in something has been restored. When you are with someone as they die, you feel something. I can't say what it is. There is the remarkable, palpable feeling of departure. No flashes of light, no bursts of choral music, but it is felt. Even when you are not present at the moment of death, when you see someone alive and moments later see them dead, there is an overwhelming feeling that that person is not there.
An experienced nurse had a good way of putting it after I had seen my first patient die (and the first dead body I had ever seen), she said "you really see that we are just flesh animated by spirit". Other things that have caused me to doubt my doubt are things like every so often getting patients who will report visitations from long dead loved ones, and proceed to die a short time after.
In the beginning, the skeptical part of my brain tried to explain these things away. Perhaps the human brain isn't used to seeing a perfectly motionless human face? Perhaps we pick up on micro movements even when people are sleeping that are so strange when they are absent on the face of the dead. Could that be the reason there is an immense feeling of the person being gone? Could visitations by long dead loved ones be caused by alterations in brain chemistry combined with a brain desperately trying to cope and rationalize what its going through?
After nights sitting up, holding hands, listening to past life stories, pushing morphine, consoling ... there came a time when I felt that perhaps logic falls short. Perhaps the human/ the heart is an adequately calibrated measure to detect the divine. Now I say I believe in "the great I don’t know." Something ... I don’t know what. Much better than nothing.
(An aside: I am a single gay man, and working in hospice has added new levels of frustration and hurt when I hear anti gay marriage arguments. I am lucky to work in a very gay accepting facility, and in part to that, we have had many gay patients pass away at our facility. I have seen amazing commitment shown by the partners of these men and women. People who are up all night with anxious sad loved ones. Guys who are there every waking hour to care for their partners needs. I have found partners on their hands and knees cleaning up poop or vomit to save their partner the embarrassment of having ask a staff member do it. I've held the hand of a crying man as he said " what will I do without him?". Even though I am single, when I hear anti marriage rhetoric, it doesn’t only hurt as a gay man anymore, it hits me in my heart now. The thought that these couples who love each other so much that they stay together till death, staying through shit, tears, anxiety, and vomit to be there for them..... And they can't even get married.)
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