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When Death is Your Coworker

Last Saturday, I cleaned my first corpse. I had spent the better part of the twenty minutes I had been on shift explaining to his family how I was going to care for him before the funeral home showed up. What they didn’t know was that this was my first time cleaning a cadaver and I was silently panicking.

I’m a nursing assistant at a nursing home. If someone has Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, or other serious illnesses that render them incapable of caring for themselves, it’s my job to step in and make sure they are clean and healthy. There are days you have to dodge punches or clean up some creative finger painting with shit, but we fill a void in society that is lacking.

At my job, when somebody dies, it is our responsibility to clean them before the funeral home comes and collects them. This usually entails changing their gown, washing them, and removing any fecal matter or urine from them. We also try to close their eyes, but sometimes they won’t. Which is charming. I had worked here about a year and a half and still have never had to clean a body.

I was a freak.

I was an anomaly.

I pulled my coworker aside and let her know what was going to be happening in the next hour. She had cleaned at least five bodies of people she had come to care about here and I trusted her to help me keep from freaking out while cleaning a man now dead I had dressed for breakfast that morning.

I met him for the first time the previous evening. He had a brain bleed and severe wounds to his knees from falling repeatedly at home. His wounds looked like something from a crime scene and my heart broke for him quietly. Confused and clearly upset, getting him ready that morning was a challenge, but after seeing his knees, I couldn’t feel anything but pity for him. So I sang to him and held his hand and asked him to promise me he would eat his food for breakfast instead of throwing it.

That night, I returned to work to find six strangers in our family room and gathered around him. They told me he was dying and I would be the one to care for him after he went. My stomach dropped and a cold panic ran through my spine.

This was the task I had been avoiding most of my working life.

I’ve worked in healthcare in various aspects on and off since I was 17. In high school, I was a receptionist at a wound care hospital. You didn’t leave there walking out, you usually left in a box or shipped to a nursing home. It was not a happy place. I spent two years in death’s shadow preparing rooms for mourning families or helping funeral homes park their hearses discreetly to pick up bodies. We had five people die in one day, they ran out of space in the cold room and had to leave bodies in their beds.

I’ve done hospice care where a woman had blood oozing out of her every half hour and it was me alone to clean her because she wanted to die at home with her dog. But I was gone when she finally passed.

I have watched over the dying with depressing frequency. I’m familiar with wounds, sadness, and death… but I had never stared at right in its vacant eyes, I never had to wash its hands, or cover it up with a blanket.

There is no more stalling. I grabbed my coworker, extra towels, and headed towards the room. Another coworker decided this was a valuable learning experience and wanted to help as well. I slowly walked into the room behind them both and cut directly into the bathroom to ready┬ásome towels. I realize I can’t stay in there, looking at myself in the mirror and trying to gather some fucking courage. I inhaled sharply and round the corner to where he’s lying. My coworker is already making quick work of the sheets, and in the bed is the shell of a man I met the previous day; jaundiced and limp with his mouth gaping open.

I avoid looking at his withered, sunken face and try to get his gown off. My coworker is in the midst of a futile attempt to get his mouth to close. I was sad. I was deeply unnerved. I was touching a fucking cadaver.

And something happened.

An overwhelming feeling of empathy. We were ushering him into the great unknown. I was the ferryman on the river Styx, only in tacky blue scrubs. Swallowing my panic, I helped turn and change him. I gently crossed his hands over his stomach and tucked him into his freshly made bed. We all looked at each other and I knew we felt the same way.

It was a small, kind, goodbye.

We were in there all of fifteen minutes, but I no longer fear the dead. I feel a gentle sadness.

Which is a fucking good thing, considering my line of work.

2 replies on “When Death is Your Coworker”

I’m sorry to hear about the passing of one of your residents. And, wow, this sounds so heavy having to be one of the “front line” people dealing with the practicalities of death up close and personal like you did here. Thank you for sharing your experience.

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