It’s in my nature to want to understand why some people take so long to die. Jenny was a middle aged woman who’s primary cancer had spread to her brain. This is always a big deal, but more so for Jenny who prided herself in being the caretaker of the family. A wife, mother, and career woman, she had balanced it all, keeping things organized for everyone in the family.
With the spread of the disease came trouble remembering details, or doing tasks, like operating her cell phone. Most people in desperation of loosing these key abilities would just give up. Not Jenny; though voicing her comfort and readiness to die, it was clear she was doing everything in her might to stay living.
As days turned into weeks this suspicion of actual un-readiness became clear. There were days she looked as if her transition had begun, only to rouse herself and force herself to eat a bite or two.
My last real conversation occurred a few days before she died. She complained to me of unrest, and I suspected terminal restlessness was setting in. In trying to clarify her feeling of unease, she suddenly said, “It’s because I can’t do anything anymore”. I asked if she believed her worth as a human was based on the tasks she preformed. “Absolutely” she said, putting as much emphasis into her response as her body would allow.
I could see now the reason for her struggle. She had defined herself by what she did, and no longer able to do things, she lost value. There was something deeper there too, as I explored with her, not only did she feel lost without being able to “do” things, she was questioning if she’d ever done enough to justify her existence. I asked gently, “Are you able to believe that you have worth, simply by being you? Based not on doing, but on being?” With utter despair, she shook her head no.
Like so many I meet, these big issues were left to be dealt with too late. In the next days she struggled against her bodies attempts to shut down. The nurses attempted getting family in to “give permission” for her to go, and her minister came to speak calming words. Ultimately, though, she didn’t want to die.
I’ve seen the last minutes of dying, and she by far did it the slowest I’ve seen. Even when air stopped being exchanged, it was as if she willed herself to keep breathing – minutes of going through the motion without actual breath. Then when we felt surely she was gone, a muscle in her throat strained with spasm in an effort to mimic breathing for several more minutes.
The unrest we all felt in that room, the nurses, family, etc, was troubling. I wish Jenny had believed in her inherent worth, it would have made dying more peaceful.