Written onAugust 17 , 2016
I began farming in 2008, moving from books to hands-on experience raising crops, sheep, dairy goats, and poultry. My experience gave me real skills, like how to humanely kill and cleanly eviscerate a chicken, and how to pull when a ewe needed assistance giving birth.
I never supposed, however, that raising farm animals would help me cope with the loss of a human family member, but earlier this year it did. Before you think I’m about to equate animals and humans in death, hear me out; it’s more complex than that.
My father-in-law had been ill for a while. The doctors called us to his bedside to await his passing. They had medicated him for comfort, and he was vaguely unconscious. The status of his life at this stage consisted of simply breathing. Listening to it focused my awareness on the simple underpinnings of our complex lives. With no language or eye contact to connect us, could we communicate in some way to tell him we were there for him?
My sheep and I don’t speak English to each other, but we communicate with touch and body language. The sheep read and respond to my mood. Some can interpret my hand gestures. It occurred to me to squeeze my father-in-law’s hand, and I received a squeeze in return.
A palliative care nurse came to talk to us about the physical and emotional processes of dying. She began by asking about our emotional states and our experiences with death. Her tentative language reminded me that unlike many Americans today, I have seen many deaths firsthand, by my own hand as a farmer and by nature’s. So had my partner and his family; he and his brother raised chickens during their youth and lived among dairy farmers in Addison County. None of us displayed the uncertainty or anxiety the nurse seemed to be preparing us for.
I thought of the first dying goat I ever saw. She was only a year old, trying to birth her first kids. They were completely stuck, and after a few hours of our work trying to save her, her eyes glazed over and her bleats weakened. She no longer resisted our handling, but just lay still. The vet finally came and administered the euthanasia drug. Together, we listened to her final gasping breaths. Her body shuddered and twitched, and then was still and peaceful.
I did not feel peaceful. I felt helpless and sad. I knew that the goat had suffered terrible pain while we intervened. That night I realized that prolonging the inevitable death of this goat, or any animal that has a remote chance of survival, has few rewards. If there were a 10-percent chance that our efforts might have saved her, there was a 90-percent chance that we made her suffer terribly, and in vain. Her only way of telling us that she was ready to go was her subtle change in body language. I wish we had listened more closely to her.
We reassured the nurse in the hospital that we weren’t clinging to thoughts of treatment or hope of my father-in-law regaining consciousness. She told us that some families reduce their loved one’s pain medications to stimulate consciousness toward the end. We found the idea shocking. None of us desired to prolong my father-in-law’s suffering and we certainly wouldn’t increase his pain for selfish reasons. The nurse seemed relieved as she explained what to look for in his breathing and movements as the end drew nearer.
Our cultural denial of death plainly causes great distress to the dying and their loved ones at a time when calm and grace are most in need. It was grace and calm that allowed me to take my favorite ram to the slaughterhouse when his work at my farm was done. I managed not to alarm or worry him. He even got to see some ewes in the holding pens and was content.
Perhaps, then, the greatest and most generous gift that farming has given me, my partner, and his family is this: Because we had seen deaths take place, we were prepared intellectually and emotionally for the process. Our acceptance of death enabled us to make the best use of the time we had left with my partner’s father. We each were able to say our final words to him without strain or regret. We were free of the stress that denial, self-pity, or anxiety would have caused. It is my hope that my father-in-law felt that sense of peace up until his last breath, which we watched him take.
When I walked up to the nurses’ station to tell them that the patient in room 81 had passed, the nurse said, “I’m sorry.” And I replied, “It was a release.”