Can I get a second opinion?
Before I tell this story, I want you all to know that the majority of people I meet put way too much stock in Hollywood’s versions of dead bodies and what they do, or do not do, in the days before they are buried. I have had people tell me about bodies that sit straight up and they saw it with their own eyes! Or watched a woman in a casket breathe, or blink, or a finger twitched, or whatever their eyes told them happened. It’s true that our minds decide what we see, that they are not dead, there was a mistake and they are still breathing just really slowly, “Just like that show I saw.” I have been brought back into a room where the family frantically asks me to call a doctor because grandma opened their eyes for split second, or their finger twitched, “I swear it!” I am not making light of these situations because it’s traumatic and sad. The truth is unless you watch the dead all day, our minds are trained to see a person sleeping. Sleeping people twitch and breath and move, dead people do not, so combine that with the yearning for them to still be alive and not have to deal with the loss in the coming days and years can assuredly create false impressions of movement. It’s heart wrenching and I have to calmly explain to the family what is happening and assure them that their deepest wish is not going to come true.
One incredibly hard moment for me was a young woman who lost her mother unexpectedly. They had not been close and there was a ton of unresolved anger and sadness that turned to guilt when she died. The mother was unmarried and her surviving daughter, an only child. There was no other family to support her. The daughter was maybe late 20’s at the time when she came in to see her mother’s body. She brought four of her friends for support. I walked them into the room and after making sure things were okay, I stepped out to give them time alone. Less than a minute later one of the friends burst open the door almost yelling “Call 911, she is still alive!” With a deep breath, I walked her back in and while standing next to the dead mother explained to the girls what they were, and were not, seeing. I remember the daughters tear-filled and hopeful eyes as she explained that maybe the doctors got it wrong asking “Can you please just call?” She had seen movies where the dead were only in a coma that made them appear dead and then later came back to life. So, after some real hard truths and calming them all down, I will never forget how those big blue eyes turned slightly gray and her body slumped in resignation. I asked the other girls to come into the hallway with me and leave her to have a final conversation with her mom and resolve some of the guilt that she will undoubtedly struggle with for the rest of her life.