I was chosen as the caretaker of Bella, a chocolate Labrador, over 13 years ago. She was born into my home and nearly a year ago she had an all-natural death in our home. Despite knowing the physical process of death, it was difficult, yet a beautiful blessing.
Our society doesn’t do death. Our pets get euthanized. Also although 80% of people desire to die at home, 60% die in the hospital and 20% nursing homes.
In hospice and palliative care models, it is considered less than optimal to have received chemotherapy or heroic efforts within the last month of life. Despite this, people who enter into palliative and hospice care earlier, live longer and in better physical health than those without such support.
One reason I feel we don’t do death is lack of exposure to death. I will share Bella’s journey, then share a typical human’s journey through the dying process.
Four months before Bella died, she was no longer interested in long walks. Short ones were ok. She still loved to fetch the ball, but did not demand it any longer. She started to sleep more. There were other things I noticed such as she ate slower and after she ate her eye were watery.
The week of her death she stopped eating. She did not eat for 5 days, then the day of her death she did not drink water. She started to stumble. We moved outside for the remainder of her time, as she loved being in nature.
At one point, she went into what is called terminal agitation, and she stumbled into the pond on the property. Shortly after that she lost bowel and bladder control and started to pant, then moved into a period of erratic breathing and shaking of her body. About two hours before her transition, she moved into an easy, rhythmic breathing pattern. It was at that point I lay on the ground and placed her on top of me. She took her last breath about two hours after that.
1 to 3 months before death, most people
- Sleep or rest more
- Eat and drink less
- Withdraw from people and stop doing things they used to enjoy
- Talk less (but if they’re a child, they may talk more)
1 to 2 weeks before death, the person may feel tired and drained all the time, so much that they don’t leave their bed. They may experience:
a change of sleep-wake patterns, further reduction in appetite and thirst, fewer and smaller bowel movements and less urine, increase in pain, changes in blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate, variations in body temperature, change in skin temperature and color, congested breathing, change in mental state, changes in breathing. The dying human may experience and relay hallucinations and visions, especially of long-gone loved ones. If your loved one is seeing and talking to someone who you do not see, simply support him/her. Bowel and bladder function may be lost and terminal agitation may occur where the dying person is picking at things in the air or s/he attempt to get up out of bed. These are all normal part of dying.
If we truly want to die at home, we need to begin to face death as natural part of living, the same as birth. Just as in birthing, dying is not a pain free process, but it is a natural process that we can bring back home.