Sharing thoughts with those considering body donation: the importance of preparing

After my mother’s death and my blog entry on how I had donated her eyes, brain and body, I got several queries on body donation. I had planned to do a full-fledged well-researched entry with data on the topic but as I’ve not yet got time for the full entry, I am doing a quick post – talking about what I consider the most important factors in being able to donate one’s body after death.

This post is about the importance of being prepared.

You see, no one expects death to happen. Even when we see someone obviously declining, we are still unprepared for the actual stopping of breath. When that happens, there is a shocking finality to it. And in that shocked state most of us slip like automaton into the stuff that follows.

Luckily for the just-bereaved, there are people around who help. These people–relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues—they call the doctor for the certificate, they dress up the body, they spread the word and even handle the condolence calls. These people find out about the nearest crematoriums (or they already have the data), they clear space in the house to place the body so that people can pay their respects, they find out about morgues, and get the municipality forms for registering the death. They know which priests to contact. The bereaved may have to provide some preferences and criteria (I want to wait for so-and-so relative to arrive first type of things), but a lot of the organizational nitty-gritty depends upon the community expertise immediately made available. People even take over the cleaning of the house and the arranging of tea or food or whatever.

Most of what follows the death thus goes according to the typical script. The relatives arrive, things are done in ways that are acceptable to the community. Everyone needs to pay respects, everyone tries to get closure.

So what’s this got to do with body donation?

The point is, there is no large pool of knowledge or experience for potential body donating families to draw upon at the time of death. Relatives and friends (who know what to do under normal last-rituals situations) are clueless on how to help for the alternate form of disposal: body donation. They are unsure of what’s going on, and perhaps unprepared or outright uncomfortable with this deviation from the norm. Relatives who were unaware that the family may consider body donation may mutter a protest or withdraw because of their discomfort. That adds to the overall awkwardness and tension.

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Impermanence, Death, Closures and Continuity through Body Donation

In brief, my mother died at home two days ago, on Sunday evening from aspiration pneumonia. In accordance to her wishes, I donated all the parts of her body that I could. Her eyes went to the eye bank; her brain went to the brain bank for research; the rest of her body went to a medical teaching hospital for students studying anatomy. Again, as per her wishes, her body was at no point put up for viewing, and no other rites were held.

These various body donations put a dignified, respectful and heart-warming end to a life that had been racked with challenges and deterioration for many years now. My mother looked peaceful, and it was the sort of end she always wanted, and I was glad I could respect her wishes.

Sharing below some of what happened.

The day started much as normal. My mother had been stable but deteriorating. The March beginning blood tests were normal. She had problems swallowing and would sometimes make gurgling sounds; they sometimes subsided in a short while, but sometimes needed medicines, including antibiotics. My mother was spending most of the day sleeping and not showing any interest in people around her most of the time.

It was around mid-morning on Sunday that she started the gurgling again. It seemed worse than the minor kind that subsided on its own, so we made her lie on her side, and called the doctor. Her expression showed no discomfort in spite of the gurgling sound, but her breathing was shallow and rapid. After a while, her body seemed warmer than normal.

Hubby and I surfed for gurgling while waiting for the doctor. We downloaded pages and PDF files with scattered, even contradictory information. Some people said gurgling came and went, some gave the gurglers just a few hours or days to live after it started, some gave them a few months, some said there was no correlation. Some explained that gurgling sounded bad to the family and worried them, but was not actually a hurtful experience for the patient. One document cautioned medical practitioners not to use the alternate term for gurgling (death rattle) in the presence of family members.

The doctor came, checked her, made me hear the gurgling through the stethoscope placed on her chest, prescribed antibiotics to be given via IV. He initiated the process of a nurse coming over with the IV stuff, while hubby went to buy the medicines. After a while, my mother’s gurgling reduced, and she seemed very tired. I tried to talk to her, but felt she wanted to rest. We cleaned her, and let her rest. Things seemed better with her. Meanwhile, we were following up for the nurse with the IV, and as soon as we realized the nurse would be arriving shortly, hubby went to my mother’s room to tell her that.

She was not breathing.

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