A New Nursing Grad Witnesses a Death

As a young nurse, I stayed and prayed with an elderly woman for the last 15 minutes of her life. I was touched by the holiness of the moment. My nursing instructor's important words were reinforced: "Always talk to your patients when they are unconscious, for they WILL hear you." Nurses Spirituality Article


A New Nursing Grad Witnesses a Death

Many times during my career, I'd have a flashback while I went about my daily routines. I would be right back in the classroom, hearing all over again what an instructor had to say...

"Always talk to your patients when they are unconscious. For they WILL hear you," lectured Miss Petit, one of my nursing instructors, with her usual voice of authority.

This advice proved true over the span of my nursing years, as I cared for countless patients. Also, it should be said, with some of my own family members. Many of them while in comas. And some of these had what is now known as near death experiences.

Poets often describe a lifetime as a bridge or a road. If that is the case, then a nurse finds herself walking alongside other people's roads. At both ends. We hear the outraged cries of a newborn baby, and the joy and laughter of the adults gathered around in the birthing room. We are there when a terminal patient breathes his last. It is part and parcel of a nurse's routine to be reaching out to unconscious patients and those who are close to death. It is never a moment to be enjoyed, but being next to a human being as he or she takes that last breath is an unforgettable, and holy experience. The road has ended, and they pass through that final door.

Mildred was dying alone in a city hospital, where I worked as a new grad in 1969. We were not even checking her vital signs-just doing care and comfort and expecting to find her gone at some point.

It was about 3 in the morning when I was making early rounds. I was actually doing this mostly to keep myself awake, for such rounds were officially done at 4 am. Walking helped.

Her breathing was slightly irregular and restless. Her face was covered with wrinkles. I remember thinking that she likely had a million stories behind those wrinkles. Her hair was a thin, ashen gray and pulled back into a bun. She laid on her right side where she had last been positioned by me about an hour before. Not much urine in her catheter demonstrated that her body was continuing to shut down.

I looked at her more closely, and tried to see the person who once lived behind all those wrinkles. The young girl who laughed and ran in the sunlight, full of life and promise. The one who held hands and kissed a fine boy in the shadows. The woman who proudly carried a baby in her arms. Maybe she was a teacher. Maybe she built airplanes during the war. Did she play cards, or did she play a piano? Did she dance on a piano? Did she sock a brash young man in the eye when he got fresh? Or did she snuggle in his arms when he tried for one more kiss?

She wore a single Catholic medal of the Virgin Mary on her neck. I looked her over, up and down the length of that small body under the blanket. She weighed maybe 80 pounds and was about 90 years old. She wore a hospital Johnny. One of the hospital's standard issue. Another sign that no family was around, not even to provide nightgowns for her. Alone, and utterly forgotten. Abandoned. Hospitals have many of these. Nursing homes are full of them.

I pulled up a chair, gently took her frail, thin-skinned hand and squeezed it. As I expected, there was no response. I squeezed again, and I took a deep breath.

"Mildred, I know you can hear me. Remember me? I am your nurse, Andrea. I have been taking care of you tonight. It is about 3 in the morning. Did you know that you are not going to live long? It is time for you to think about letting go. I see you are wearing a necklace with the Virgin Mary on it. I am a Baptist-I hope that does not offend you. I do not know any Catholic prayers. But I do know the Lord's prayer, which I know that you know also, as a Catholic. I hope it is OK that I say this with you now, and also that I am going to pray for you to have peace."

I prayed for her in a soft voice.

I sat with her for several minutes after I finished praying. All around me, the hospital was still and quiet. Her breathing became quieter. Then suddenly, her face became most peaceful. A few of her wrinkles disappeared, and her whole, entire body relaxed. She released her urine, and gradually her breathing stopped. It was a most holy feeling moment. My first bedside death.

There is no question in my mind there is an afterlife and that we will meet people we have encountered in this life. I hope Mildred is one of the first to greet me.

Andrea enjoyed 8 distinct careers within 42 years of nursing . She is in the process of writing a book of nursing experiences.

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77 Posts

Specializes in Medical-surgical nursing.

Very touching :hug:


304 Posts

Precious story. Thank you for sharing.


39 Posts

What a beautiful moment. It's sad to think that in this world there are very few people who would do that.

Ruas61, BSN, RN

1,368 Posts

Specializes in MDS/ UR.

Thank you for doing that wit Mildred.

Long Term Care Columnist / Guide

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

108 Articles; 9,984 Posts

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych.

Absolutely precious......what a gift you were to Mildred. Bless you for what you did for her. :redpinkhe

MN-Nurse, ASN, RN

1,398 Posts

Specializes in Med Surg - Renal.
there is no question in my mind there is an afterlife and that we will meet people we have encountered in this life. i hope mildred is one of the first to greet me.

there isn't an afterlife, but that doesn't matter. what matters is you took good care of mildred, trying to address all her needs as best you could, before she passed away.


652 Posts

LOL seriously? Amazing...I can't get over some people.

Specializes in ICU.

There is no question in my mind that there is an afterlife, either. My son died on the operating table twice. He was bleeding out. The surgeon turned grey when he was told, by my son, of the events that he experienced. My son described to him, in great detail, everything he saw and witnessed regarding the surgery, even though he was completely under. The surgeon had stopped the surgery, and closed, because my son was at "the point of no return." So he believed what my son told us, as he knew he had lost him twice.

Specializes in Neuroscience/Brain and Stroke.

Very touching, thank you for being with her in her final moments, we need more just like you!

MN-Nurse, you are entitled to your opinions but please don't speak them as fact (especially since you said "but that doesn't matter"), I'm sure you have never experienced the "afterlife" as you are speaking here today, so please show a little more tact in your posts.

Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing


60 Posts

It really is very sad how few people do this. Sadder still, I think, were the number of nurses & CNA's who mocked me when I did it. Several made statements in the room, with the patient, such as "Why do you always tell him what you're going to do? He can't hear you." Some laughed in front of the patient. Although it's been many years since I've experienced this, it still makes me sad to think of it.

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