A Lesson Before Dying

I read end-of-life interviews and it is so sobering to read stories about dying patients’ life histories, hopes, and dreams. In one interview a patient discusses her experiences in health care and how she feels that some nurses need to show more empathy. This patient mentions a poem that they give to nursing students that is themed around this lack of empathy. This poem is so beautiful and so perfect for my purposes that I just had to look it up online and share it with you here:

Crabby Old Woman

What do you see, nurses?
What do you see?
What are you thinking
When you’re looking at me?

A crabby old woman,
Not very wise,
Uncertain of habit,
With faraway eyes?

Who dribbles her food
And makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice,
“I do wish you’d try!”

Who seems not to notice
The things that you do,
And forever is losing
A stocking or shoe?

Who, resisting or not,
Lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding,
The long day to fill?

Is that what you’re thinking?
Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse,
You’re not looking at me.

I’ll tell you who I am
As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding,
As I eat at your will.

I’m a small child of ten30s Portrait
With a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters,
Who love one another.

A young girl of sixteen
With wings on her feet
Dreaming that soon now
A lover she’ll meet.

A bride soon at twenty,
My heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vows
That I promised to keep.

At twenty-five now,
I have young of my own,
Who need me to guide
And a secure happy home.

A woman of thirty,
My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other
With ties that should last.

At forty, my young sons
Have grown and are gone,
But my man’s beside me
To see I don’t mourn.

At fifty once more,
Babies play round my knee,
Again we know children,
My loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me,
My husband is dead,
I look at the future,
I shudder with dread.

For my young are all rearingolder_woman_sleeping
Young of their own,
And I think of the years
And the love that I’ve known.

I’m now an old woman
And nature is cruel;
‘Tis jest to make old age
Look like a fool.

The body, it crumbles,
Grace and vigour depart,
There is now a stone
Where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass
A young girl still dwells,
And now and again,
My battered heart swells.

I remember the joys,
I remember the pain,
And I’m loving and living
Life over again.

I think of the years
All too few, gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact
That nothing can last.

So open your eyes, people,
Open and see,
Not a crabby old woman;
Look closer . . . see me.

7 thoughts on “A Lesson Before Dying

  1. Not sure I share the sentiment, other than seeing the poet as bitter. I wrote many articles on human dignity, the respect of the elderly and what we can learn from someone in palliative care. By their very being, they deserve dignity. And the nurses, by the large majority, comply.
    “They stay their post in the face of death amid wails of anguish 24 hours a day. Yet, the only medal of honour pinned to their uniforms is a name tag.
    Janice Chobanuk knows the men and women treating palliative care patients are true heroes.”
    The Unc


  2. Yes, i think we all need to journey over that boundary to what Hemingway called, and we all seem too often to shrink from, “another country”


  3. This is one of my fav poems. My mother lived the last year of her life in a nursing home, not by my choice. Nursing homes are a terrible place. More like a prison. I wrote a poem from what I felt she was thinking.


  4. I believe nurses and doctors work hard and do their best, but the fact is that dying patients need a different kind of care that an overburdened medical system can’t provide to every member of the public. Unfortunately, palliative care isn’t an option for a lot of dying patients.

    Ask someone how they want to die. They’ll tell you they want to die with dignity. Palliative care allows patients to die with dignity. Do you remember Dr. Kevorkian’s definition of dignity? The fact is that dignity can be interpreted many different ways.


  5. I would have to disagree with the response of UNC above.
    Though it is true that there are good nurses, it is unfortunate to see an increasing number of nurses specially in geriatric and palliative care, where we experience peobably the worst quality of nursing care. As a geriatric Physician I have seen some very calous, disrespectful and heartless people treating the elderly with such disregard that this poem would reflect not a bitter old women but a women badly hurt by the calous disregard and indifference of some nurses.
    Luke Hamid MD


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