Anthropology, thanatology, history & archeology connoisseur, death positivity & LGBTQIA+ public speaker/activist. Founder of @Namelessdoes
Through my years working alongside death and grief, I have learned a lot about human nature and our relationship with death. A single lesson comes to mind as being the most fundamental: There are as many ways to react to death as there are people and relationships.
While the practical response to death almost always falls into set cultural patterns, the emotional response is unpredictable and unique to all. Some laugh, some cry; some talk, some fall silent. Some never get to grasp the reality of it, while some are tortured by its absolute and unavoidable nature. Some find peace of mind; some only find more questions.
It is that infinite variety of responses with an infinite amount of playing factors that have fascinated man since the very beginning, inspiring artists, scholars, poets, and philosophers alike. Threading down the halls of the most important classical art collections, one finds themselves admiring exquisite impressions of sorrow: Mothers clutching their lifeless babes, a martyr’s spine-chilling fate glorified, pictures of wars long waged by soldiers bygone.
Along my path to gaining a deeper understanding of death (and life), I have gathered dozens of real-life accounts of face-to-face encounters with death. Here are 5 of these testimonies, stories of compassion, dread, fascination, fear, love, grief, and all that comes in between, as told by those who have felt it.
1. Testimony by AJ
“I used to work in the ER in a city; I’ve been there for a lot of codes and seen people die many times. I guess it didn’t phase me; I saw everyone (docs, nurses, specialties) all come in and work super hard. I knew that death was inevitable.
This one night, someone came in that tried killing themselves, and I watched everyone try and help the person. I left for my lunch cause I was exhausted, came back from break, they were dead, and I had to body-bag them. I had to be careful with the body, the cause of death was suicide, the coroner had to be involved; I had to take extra precautions. I mostly thought it was funny that body bagging was a part of my job description.
I didn’t cry or get upset when people died in the ER; it was when my aunt died that really affected how I saw people dying. My aunt was in her early 30s when she died from surgery complications. I saw her body in the casket, and the makeup they put on her hands didn’t hide the bruises from the IV. I cried so hard holding her hands.”
I didn't cry or get upset when people died in the ER, it was when my aunt died that really affected how I saw people dying.
2. Testimony by Ic Mueller
“My boyfriend and I went kayaking on a very hot summer day down a main river in my county. This is a trip we had made many times before and did not expect anything unusual to occur. Around the first bend in the river, there were large trees that had fallen, blocking 80% of the left side. Before reaching the bend, we could already smell the strong scent of decomp; whatever was decomposing was so large that I just assumed it was a deer that got hit on the road above and flew into the river and got snagged on the fallen trees.
We just continued on our way around the trees and spent the next three hours paddling that same river debating on whether it was a person or, in fact, roadkill. We decided that if whatever it was, was still there when we came back to get my car that we would call the non-emergency line just to be safe.
Well turns out not even an hour after we had just paddled around this person, someone had been more curious and checked to see what it was. It was a man who was homeless and had mental issues. He was wearing a grey shirt and sweatpants that when wet looked like fur. He was so bloated that he didn’t even have a human shape anymore and was turned on his side, head in the water that made it look like a deer on its side muddied by the recent flood.
An officer saw our kayaks and stopped us. We told him our story and wrote down reports of what we had done. It took me days to wrap my head around the fact that I was so focused on having a good weekend that I kayaked around a dead man just because it smelled so awful I didn’t want to get close, and I had somehow convinced myself that there was no way it was, in fact, a human being.
We both felt so guilty for not stopping when we could have, but there was no way to know for sure unless you got close even to move him. We were going to call but only if “it” was still there. What if he hadn’t been, and he was lost forever to the river? It makes me sick to think of what I did/didn’t do.”
3. Testimony by Amanda Rickett
” I have worked in a nursing home for 15 years. I have seen hundreds of people die over the years. I have even held both of my parent’s hands as I had to watch them die as well as some very close friends. Death is all around us. It’s the only thing everyone in life has in common: we will all eventually die.
However, there was one patient I had that really stuck in my memory as an experience I won’t forget. I was working the night shift from 11 pm to 7 am. As I did my rounds in each patient’s room to check on them, everyone was accounted for and sleeping well. One of the last patients I checked on was sleeping, and as I walked out, she woke up and said goodbye. Assuming she meant goodnight, I said goodnight to her. I walked down the hallway and sat down to do paperwork. Something told me to go back and check on her.
When I reached her room, I found her face down on the floor and unresponsive. I ran to her side. knowing there was nothing I could do because she was a DNR. All I could do was get her back in her bed, clean her up and dress her in her best pajamas and call to notify her family. I still to this day think her “goodbye” instead of her saying “goodnight” was exactly what she meant.”
Death is all around us. It's the only thing everyone in life has in common, we will all eventually die.
4. Testimony by Anonymous
"I haven't always been so comfortable around death. I think the moment I accepted it was two years ago, but I still have deaths that shake me. What helped me accept most deaths was working on a case from start to finish with a suicide. It was my first time seeing someone dead and not in a casket. It was cold, and I just remember the person did not look real, almost like a wax figure. My caring instincts kicked in; I didn't know what to do but knew what I would have wanted if I was a survivor in that circumstance. I hugged the family and just listened.
The next day I was able to attend the autopsy. Seeing the vessel, not the living being, helped me realize the body is just our little ship that carries us until we no longer need or want it. Since that day, I actually prefer to be that caring shoulder to cry on, that person that just listens to the stories the survivors have about the deceased, and the person that gets to give a tiny bit of closure to those who need it. Most dread walking up to a home and seeing the tale-tell signs of death, I enjoy it. I am able to help preserve the family's memories of their family member without traumatizing them with the way the deceased looks."
5. Testimony by Carpe Noctem
"I had a cat when I was maybe six years old that was a very avid mouser. We lived in an old farmhouse that attracted a lot of mice, so we would let him loose in the basement whenever we heard them, and usually he would eat all of them, but a couple times, he would just kill them and leave them there, and I'd find tiny mouse skeletons all over the place. I always thought they were really interesting.
Then that same year, my grandpa died of a heart attack, and I went to his funeral. It was an open casket funeral, and I remember not really being grossed out or disturbed that he was dead but rather disturbed that they combed up his hair, and I could see that the roots were grey because I had no idea that he had naturally grey hair. I wasn't bothered by death; I just figured that it happened to everyone, and that was that. I didn't participate in the prayers, but I did, and still do to this day, clean up and trim him and my grandmother's gravesite every time I visit.
Both of those events got me really interested in death at a young age as something interesting that happened in the world, but the catalyst for being fully obsessed with it was when the STEM teacher at my middle school snuck me along on a field trip to a body lab. I got to hold organs, hold severed heads, see brain samples, stand in a room full of dried-up and open corpses and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Living in a major city as well I saw a good amount of death but the body lab was what really got me interested in death as a career.
I wondered if I could ever have myself donated to a body lab or farm and if I would end up being dried up like beef jerky and used to teach college students where the veins are in the body."
I wasn't bothered by death, I just figured that it happened to everyone and that was that.
These testimonies have been gathered with the intent of sharing them as a death-positive destigmatization tool. To all who entrusted us with their stories, to those who read them, and to those that are no longer among us: Thank you.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.