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July 14, 2012

We pulled up to a small, white house in a neighborhood stricken with poverty.  Its appearance was dismal: couches on the porch, chipped paint peeling off the wooden sides, sheets hanging over the windows.  The patient has just died.

I heard it the moment I opened the car door: a woman screaming.  I couldn’t make out any words but only the distant crying and moaning of someone in pain.  It took me a moment to realize that the sound was coming from inside the patient’s home.  As we walked closer to the house, the sound crescendo-ed into an unbearable wailing.  The sound was like nothing I have ever heard.  It is a sound only humans are capable of and overflows with grief, despair and loss of soul.

As we entered the house, I winced at the noise, which was now at its peak.  And then I saw her.  A black woman who looked in her 30s at the bedside of her dead mother.  Her face stained with tears, her body shook, she stroked her mother, shook her, begged her, “Mommy, mommy, please come back.  Don’t leave me here, mommy.”  The mere earnest and desperation in her pleas was unbearable to witness.  I cry now just recalling the moment.

A family member pulled the daughter away but she resisted, “No, no I can’t leave her!”  She collapsed against her aunt, her knees buckled and she fell to the floor.  Like a child hugging the knees of a mother, asking for forgiveness rather than punishment, she cried out, “Oh God, GOD!  This is the hardest thing I’ve ever lived to feel!”  The hardest thing I’ve ever lived to feel; it is a phrase I will never forget.  There’s no sound more heart wrenching than that of a woman in mourning.

The nurse and I stepped into a side bedroom to wait for the coroner as the rest of the family members filtered in.  The daughter eventually calmed and the house fell silent, save for the quiet footsteps of loved ones paying their respects.  Family members approached their dead relative and hugged her, stared at her solemnly, even spoke to her a few farewell words.  Such a stark contrast to the white family I experienced during my first death; this family was very involved in their loved one’s death.

Slowly, the women of the family filtered into the room where we are, introduced themselves, made small chit chat, spoke of the dead relative in fond memory.  Eventually the daughter came in, still crying but calm, introduced herself and hugged me.  By this time there were 7 women crammed into a tiny bedroom.  I’m not quite sure what happened next.  A kind of sisterhood immediately formed and the nurse and I were entirely included, as if we were family members too.  The women laughed tenderheartedly, shared stories and pictures of cousins and grandchildren, and without plan or prayer we ended up holding hands in a circle.  I glanced at the hospice nurse; she was fighting tears through a genuine smile.  It was an incredible moment.

It was one of those cosmically mysterious moments in life that can appear purely out of the tender quality of human nature.

After handling the “paperwork of death” (talking to coroner, disposing of meds properly, etc.) we said our goodbyes.  I made sure to find the daughter, who was secluded in a corner in the kitchen speaking to the preacher.  I interrupted, “Thank you for letting me be a part of this sad time with you.  I’m so sorry.  Please keep strong as I know you are and I still can’t believe you’re 55!”  (this was a joke during our sisterhood moment that black women seem to age so well)  She laughed through tears and hugged me once more.

The nurse and I sat in her car for a while after that visit.  There was silence between us.  I think we were both marveling in what we had just witnessed.  Death is such a sad and unknowingly scary thing but what we had just experienced was just the opposite.  We felt elated, at peace, and reborn into gratification for our own lives.  The nurse eventually turned to me and said, “I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”  All I could do was nod in agreement, “Me neither.”