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Is There Ever a Good Time to Die?

Charity Gallardo - Friday, December 23, 2011

Guest blogger, Heidi Telpner, Hospice RN

I don’t know if there is either a best time or a worst time to die. There’s just a time to die. As Ecclesiastes says regarding life and death, “To everything there is a season. A time to be born; a time to die.”

In Jewish tradition, it’s relatively common for practicing Jews to die just before or just after our most sacred holiday, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. My grandmother died a day after Yom Kippur.

In my hospice practice, I’ve found that many patients die close to an important event, a birthday, a wedding anniversary, at holiday time, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, less so around Easter and Passover. I have no idea why this is the case. Perhaps it has something to do with natural seasonal rhythms, as the daylight hours grow short and the nights grow longer patients feel it’s a good time to go. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

If you are a surviving spouse or parent or child, it doesn’t matter if death occurs during the holiday season or in the middle of August, you feel bereft. My mother-in-law passed away two years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Although she had been declining, it was still a shock. In an odd way, it’s become a blessing because for the past two Thanksgivings we’ve remembered the anniversary of her death, but more importantly, we’ve celebrated her life.

The fact that she died on Thanksgiving provides us with a guidepost, a place to stop our day to day activities and remember. We have an opportunity to tell her story when the family is gathered together. Yes, we miss her, but being together with other people who knew her provides comfort and solace. Sharing memories on a happy day, a day set aside to give thanks, makes her loss less painful. Talking about my mother-in-law can’t bring her back, but it imbues the holiday with her spirit.

I think the key is this - Holidays are sacred. This is time set aside, usually for spiritual reasons, to spend with those people we love and care about, the people closest to us. It’s easier to deal with death when we surround ourselves with the living, people who know us, people who care about us, and who understand our loss.

There is no perfect time to die. I’m guessing most of us wish that our world did not include death. However, during the holidays, families usually pull together. Every day means more than an ordinary day. Every day is an extraordinary day. At Christmas time we’re grateful for what we have rather than dwelling upon what we’ve lost. Perhaps this is why so many of my patients seem to pass away during the Christmas season.

When you lose a person you love, it’s hard to find comfort, even in tradition and ritual. Yet immersing yourself in tradition and ritual can provide a guidepost, a resting place. It’s like my mother-in-law’s passing. Her death felt raw at first, and it we felt guilty for celebrating on Thanksgiving. Now she’s in our hearts. Her passing at holiday time makes it easier for all of us to remember her life.

The feeling is bittersweet, but mostly sweet.

Heidi Telpner is author of One Foot in Heaven, available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. Heidi accidentally stumbled into nursing twenty-seven years ago and she never stumbled out. She's been a hospice nurse for the last nine of those twenty-seven years. Her initial training was as a midwife. She now midwifes her patients out the other end of life. Ms. Telpner and her husband live on the West Coast. They have three children, a dog, three cats, two birds and one lucky koi.

About One Foot in Heaven:

People die everyday. While most people in America die in a hospital, many families choose hospice for end of life care. Death, as experienced by hospice nurses, can be beautiful, peaceful, humorous, touching, tragic, disturbing, and even otherworldly. Hospice nurses act as midwives to dying people every day. Death transforms not just the patient and family, but the hospice nurse as well. The stories in this book are presented with the hope that their transformation extends to you, too.

"I would say that "One Foot in Heaven" is more than a well-crafted memoir of a hospice nurse's professional life. It is more accurately, a truthful and artistic account of a women's spiritual awakening to the beauty that can be found in a world that is marred by mortality, by the sorrow of infinite loss.  - Patrick Damon McIntyre"


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