For most of human history, it was ordinary for families and even close friends to be present for the death of a loved one. People knew the sights, sounds, and smell of death. For a sick person to die alone would be considered an extreme misfortune. But the 20th century moved death from home to hospital. As Philippe Aries wrote, “The hospital is the only place where death is sure of escaping a visibility—or what remains of it—that is hereafter regarded as unsuitable and morbid.” While it was once a great tragedy to die alone, many now consider it a tragedy when one must be present for the death of a loved one.
To be sure, no one who witnesses the death of a loved one escapes trauma. Death is painful, and even those who are prepared for it often panic at the last moment. When people plan to die at home but end up dying in a hospital, caregiver panic is frequently the reason. The last moments of life can be excruciating to watch, and caregivers often call an ambulance to bring relief for their loved ones.
Caregivers who have a home healthcare provider to reassure them do much better. When the family knows the process is normal and unavoidable, they are able to brace themselves against the pain and endure it to the end. The advantage of hospice over home death is that professionals are responsible for all medical decisions, and the family can focus on comforting their loved one, grieving, and saying farewell.
I’ve thought a great deal about this process and how it may improve our society if we once again become familiar with death and dying in a more personal manner. I honestly believe this experience gives people a deeper experience of life, grief, love, and loss. I’ve read about it, and I’ve written about it, but I was surprised to hear so many of my thoughts on the subject expressed in a folk song of just a few minutes.
Last night I went to see a performance by Susan Gibson, an extremely talented singer/songwriter. During the second set, Gibson invited Jana Pochop on stage to sing two songs. The first was about what you will do in the moment when your soul leaves your body. The imagery was compelling and profoundly sad. When this song is available, I would recommend it to help families prepare for the imminent death of a loved one. I also believe the song will be appropriate for a medical humanities curriculum.
I didn’t intend for this blog to ever have anything to do with folk music, but I also did not anticipate folk music intersecting my interests in medical humanities, caregiver narratives, home/hospice death, and survivor stories. The following video is not of the song in question, but it gives you an idea of Jana Pochop’s talents.