Lessons from Class on Life and Death

In my Dementia class this evening we had a long talk about death and about the “end stages” of life.  It began with a discussion about grief, and kind of evolved from there.  My professor pointed out that it was important for me to understand myself as a person and to understand my own reactions and feelings about grief and about death.  Such understanding will enable me to effectively help the people that I work with in my everyday life.  I work with older people, and so death is something that is a part of life on a regular basis.

Our class talked about the fact that, as helpers, we have a whole toolbox full of things that we can use to help us help people.  It is so easy to run to that toolbox and pull out this intervention or that “trick” in order to fix whatever is “wrong” with the person in front of us.  My professor said that sometimes the toolbox is empty, or the lid has to remain closed, and all we have in that moment as a tool is ourselves.  Sometimes the only thing we can do is be there in that moment.  We don’t have to have all of the answers, or be able to fix everything.  If I want to be an effective compassionate person, then I need to be willing to be there with people and just listen.

Often when working with the oldest of the older people, we as helpers notice a disengagement or almost a withdrawal from life in general.  It can be easy to freak out and send for evaluations and medications and other interventions, but that is not the appropriate response to moments like this.  For people in the end stages of life, who have lived a very long and full existence and are at the point where there isn’t much more ahead of them, it is normal to begin to think and reflect.  It is hard work to come to terms with life and the decisions and choices that were made along the way.  It takes time and effort to come to a peace about where life has taken a person and where he/she is now.  Sometimes people going through this stage of life (known as Gerotranscendence, if you are interested) need someone to be present, to hear them talk about the things they have been thinking about.

Subject matter like this is deep and requires a level of thought that is intense and frankly takes a lot out of the thinker.  I want to be in a place where I am comfortable listening and just being there in a way that is helpful and healing to the older people that I serve.  I want to be known for my compassion and for my ability to understand and listen and not for my ability to come up with a solution.  Sometimes a solution is an insult.

I am so glad to be able to take this class and think about these kinds of subjects.


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