Life after death: When dying is an ordinary part of your working day


Updated

May 12, 2018 10:11:53

Despite its inevitability, death catches many of us off guard. We asked three people who come into contact with death daily how — if at all — it changes their outlook on life, and on dying.

‘There’s always an answer’

Kylie Blumson, crime scene photographer

Sergeant Kylie Blumson is planning for life after death.

When she eventually leaves the Queensland Police Service, the forensic photographer — whose working days are often spent attending the morgue and recreating crime scenes using 3D technology — hopes to indulge her “obsession” with France by moving there.

“We have to retire at 60, so I don’t think I will be sitting around sipping tea. There’s a whole world of opportunities out there,” she says, adding that she is already learning French.

In the meantime, Sergeant Blumson loves her job. But the reality is, her skills are most often called upon when a person has died unexpectedly.

“Hopefully, if you live your life with honesty and make good decisions, have an appreciation and gratitude for life, then you won’t see us,” she says.

“It doesn’t mean to say there are no unfortunate situations — anyone who’s vulnerable, and it could be old people, or children or even animals, they’re the situations that are confronting.

“We can’t avoid death, or tragedies, or certain circumstances in life, but I think being appreciative of what you have right now, that mindfulness thing — being conscious of what’s around you — compels you to be the best that you can.

“I’m constantly saying to my son, think about your decisions and the consequences. Don’t put yourself in that position. Be more conscious of the world around you and be aware that it can quickly be taken away from you.”

Sergeant Blumson says dealing with death in her professional life only went so far in preparing her for her mother’s death from cancer two years ago.

“She was put into palliative care. It was a confronting perspective [on death]. My sister [a pharmacist] and I were very different in our approach in dealing with the situation,” she says.

“She did say to me at one point that I appeared to have no empathy. I looked at it like a process we needed to go through — a long period of someone dying, essentially.

“I surprised myself, because I am actually quite an emotional person and sensitive.

“I think despite being exposed to death for the past 15 years in my job, it is always going to be different if that situation is personal. Watching someone pass away in front of you is extremely confronting and upsetting.

“Being in that situation can change your perspective on other things, like how people choose to control their own mortality … but I knew that this person was going to pass away, and I knew what would happen next. It was comforting already understanding what would happen after you said your goodbyes.

“It does make you confront your own mortality. I plan on ensuring that my son is exposed to the least confronting situation when I die. I’m a pretty organised person so I’ll probably consider this process as well as possible so it has the least impact on him and his family, at the time.”

Although Sergeant Blumson, like many police officers, long ago learnt to put up a “shield” — if their work upsets them, she acknowledges, “we always have support and I generally just do the job we are trained for and deal with any emotions later”.

“My job, if anything, actually motivates me to live life to the fullest, take opportunities when they’re in front of me and appreciate what I have. Obviously, everyone has their struggles in life, but there’s always an answer,” she says.

“Look, you can’t be happy 24/7 — you have to be able to cope with adversity and challenges, and you don’t get resilience from living a perfect life.

“I grew up in an environment where life was unpredictable and my mother was often in situations where tragedy could have occurred at any moment. So I always lived with the fear that she could be taken away at any time, which is a defining perspective on life and death when you grow up.

“For a long time we all tried to show her the error of her ways — but you have to let it go and accept that people make their own choices. I think any person, good or bad, has an opportunity to live life to the best of their ability. And if this comes with challenges, there’s so much support out there.

“The only thing I get upset about is when people don’t take opportunities to improve their lives yet always have an excuse for why they are unhappy.

“Life is precious so treat it with the respect it deserves.”

‘It’s about love’

Gemma Belle, nursing home receptionist

In a decade working at an aged care home, Gemma Belle has loved and lost more friends than most of us will in a lifetime.

As a receptionist at the Marycrest high-rise palliative care facility in Brisbane, run by St Vincent’s Care Services, Ms Belle’s is the friendly face that greets people as they enter and leave.

Invariably, they are the children, grandchildren and friends of residents, and often they’re anxious, fearful, sad and pre-emptively grieving, for this will likely be the last place their loved one calls home.

“I’m that person that everybody sees as they walk in the door in a vulnerable situation,” the soft-spoken 38-year-old mum of one says.

Those who live inside the complex see her no differently. Dying can be a lonely business, especially in a nursing home, where the reassurance of visiting friends and relatives is temporary, and the choice of human company is limited to staff and other residents.

Ms Belle is often the person to whom residents look daily for reassurance and company, whether it’s a friendly chat, an errand that needs organising or a post hair salon compliment.

“It’s not all the families that I make that connection with. Some of them come and go and I’m just the happy face there, smiling as they come in. Although some of them have mentioned to me that they appreciate even that,” she says.

“Some of them, I guess, need more from me. I’m that person who’s always there, so I’m helping with all the problems they have and directing them, and I guess I’m pretty empathetic and compassionate. I build a rapport with some of them really easily.”

Ms Belle says while nursing homes can bring out the best and often the worst in people, the final stages of a person’s life are regardless a privilege to witness.

“Grief is such an individual experience. I guess as soon as the residents come in the grieving process starts. It’s the end stage, they’re not leaving. People deal with that in such different ways,” she said.

“In this facility, there are people from all different walks of life who’ve lived all different kinds of lives, and you can only try and understand why they’re reacting the way they are. It’s a difficult time in life, and people here reflect a lot on their life, as they’re getting closer to death. So maybe if their life has been difficult, with dementia some of that comes to the surface.

“There’s a loss of freedom and independence, and losing their cognitive and physical capabilities. There’s a lot of pain that people go through — the residents and their families.

“And because they feel closer to death, it’s amazing watching people go through that, how strong people are and all the different emotions they and their families feel. It’s a privilege.”

Ms Belle says being able to talk about her work — with colleagues, friends and even her 7-year-old daughter — was key to coping with any stress or sadness arising from regularly occurring deaths in the home.

“I have explained to her a few times when I’ve been sad, about the fact a resident died. I think it’s important,” she says.

“In Australian society we’re quite separate from death, especially children. The more you’re exposed to it in a natural supportive way, the better.

“Of course everyone grieves in their own way, but here some people don’t want to go and see their loved one whereas in lots of countries they’ll stay together in the same room, for days, and children are there. We’re more wary of children around death.”

Although death was a constant presence in her working day, it was not always a negative experience.

“Probably, I have more positive feelings about death. It makes you think about life when you’re thinking about death a lot, how you live your own life and how short it is, and what’s important,” she says.

“A lot of us genuinely love our jobs. Personally, I can’t put into words (why) sometimes how I feel about this place and all those memories, and all those people, and all that love.”

‘How lucky am I that’s not me’

Rod Pianegonda, funeral celebrant

Funeral celebrant Rod Pianegonda is disarmingly frank when asked to describe his frequent exposure to death.

“It might sound like a selfish thing to say, but when you see people on the slab, some part of your subconscious is saying, ‘How lucky am I that’s not me. I’m still here,'” he said.

“Deep down there is that realisation that I’ve been at hundreds, probably thousands of funerals, and not one of them has been mine.”

Mr Pianegonda, who previously worked in a funeral home for 10 years, believes tackling the topic of death head-on not only helps people cope better with the loss of a loved one but can vastly improve a person’s attitudes in the time they have left.

“It’s a bit of a cliche, really — but live each day like it’s your last. You really do realise that, after seeing people who visibly look young, healthy, fit and their time has come. As I get older in the business, more and more I think wow, this person’s younger than me. It makes you realise that life is really fragile and we really can’t pick an outcome, and you really should just enjoy it.

“I guess it’s made me a bit self-centred — I like to do what I want to do every day, it’s all about having a satisfying life, really.

“People don’t want to talk about death beforehand, although it is hard to say to an 80-year-old come on, let’s discuss your funeral. My dad had an Italian background, and I know it’s a great generalisation, but from what I’ve experienced Italians are a little bit frightened of death. There’s some sort of real conflict there.

“The knowledge of death and being able to embrace it as you age will give you a much more fulfilling and focussed life — on being a good citizen and building a good community and society, through the simple philosophy that once we’re gone we’re gone, and let’s do the best we can while we’re here.”

Mr Pianegonda admits he wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea of death.

“There was a period where I worked a lot of hours at a funeral home that had the government contract for picking up the deceased from homes and accident scenes,” he says.

If you or anyone you know needs help:

“I had to be on call, and there was one week when I did a fair bit of overtime and there was one horrendous accident and I had to pick up an 8-year-old girl who’d been playing on the railway tracks. I had to go to the boss and said look, I need to talk to someone.”

He now calls on his experiences to better comfort people in their time of need.

“I’m the sensitive type — I cry at movies all the time. One of the hard things about being in the funeral business at the start was listening to all the beautiful speeches people make and getting a lump in the throat, and thinking ‘what a beautiful person’ (who just died),” he says.

“I got used to it, and go up to the people and say ‘that was a great eulogy, you did really well’. Since I’ve been a funeral celebrant, going out and meeting people has been very rewarding. Even though I think I’m not doing very much, that I’m just presenting a service, people are very thankful.

“It’s a strange thing, because I think the second thing people most fear after death is public speaking. I combine both.”

Topics:

death,

forensic-science,

aged-care

First posted

May 12, 2018 05:00:00



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