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"The Coming and Going Room"
Death can be an intimate experience
by Mary B. Moorhead

Orginal article published Saturday, December 2, 2000 in The Contra Costa Times
Original online link address: http://www.contracostatimes.com/health/columnists/moorhead/stories/x2comcol_20001202.htm

Published Saturday, December 2, 2000

Death can be an intimate experience
On Elder Care: Mary B. Moorhead

Toward the beginning of the last century, most homes had a "coming and going room." It was right next to the kitchen and was intended for family births and deaths. Close to cooking, conversation and meals, this room was warm and comforting. Family members could keep an eye on birthing mothers or dying elders. Birth and death were an inevitable natural part of the family life cycle.

But times have certainly changed, for better or worse, due to the progress of medical science. Most often, we are born and die in hospitals or nursing homes, far from the warmth of the family hearth. Death is no longer a natural part of the life cycle but a medical illness to be conquered, no matter what the emotional or financial cost.

Can we somehow get back to the coming and going room? Seeking answers, I interviewed my friend and colleague, Micheal Pope. Micheal is a mother, church volunteer and the director of Hayward's Alzheimer's Services of the East Bay. And she recently helped a beloved neighbor fight and then succumb to cancer.

Mary Moorhead: Do you have any suggestions for other caretakers of the dying?

Micheal Pope: Let the person die in their own way. Don't force them to conform to others' expectations. Determine their wishes. We played (my friend's) favorite music, surrounded her with candles and kept her company. We talked about both the mundane details of daily life and her dying. We comforted her, hugged her and even lay down next to her to ease her pain and fears.

Also, we chose less intrusive medical devices that were more work for us caretakers, but they helped her maintain dignity. And it was easier to be physically close to her. For example, for oxygen, we used a nasal cannula rather than an awkward oxygen mask.

MM: What surprised you the most?

MP: The difficulty of watching a dear friend die piece by piece was accompanied by a profound positive effect. I am still sorting out my feelings. By inviting me to share this very intimate experience, my friend gave me an incredible gift. This relationship has been different than any other in my life.

Our spirits, our inner selves, were always deeply connected. We got along so well, even before the illness. Amazingly, on the outside, we were very different. She was a white, blond, blue-eyed, Jewish suburbanite. I am Afro-American, Methodist and a city person. But we easily rose above these superficial differences. She showed me what is important in life. And I would have given my life for her.

MM: Has this experience changed you?

MP: Oh, yes. For one, my priorities have changed. I used to keep a very strict schedule both at work and home. Now I am much more relaxed. Schedules are not as important as enjoying the company of friends and relatives. At Thanksgiving, many people arrived late or at different times. We did not have enough matching chairs. We were off schedule. None of this mattered. We had a wonderful enjoyable meal.

Further, the bells and whistles, the exterior facades of others, are irrelevant. I prefer friends who can share their true feelings, their humanity, their vulnerability.

As we finished our conversation, I was struck by the bravery and beauty of Micheal. She volunteered to take this challenging journey with her friend. Without knowing it, Micheal created a coming and going room.

Mary B. Moorhead is a licensed family therapist and elder-care specialist with clients throughout the East Bay. Write to her c/o the Times, P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596-8099. Send e-mail to Mbmoorhead@aol.com.

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