I don’t think you can ever prepare someone for the sight of a real dead body. I say real because the kind of dead body you see at a funeral home, with all the makeup, hair, jewelry, and fancy clothing looks nothing like a freshly dead corpse.
So, when I encountered my first dead body, I realized that not even nursing school had prepared me. All that C.P.R. (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) training on a healthy looking dummy became a foggy memory when I was called to the bedside of my first dead patient.
She was a lovely woman who had undergone hip surgery earlier that day. Other than a little indigestion, she had no complaints. I set her up for dinner thinking that would help soothe her stomach, then went to the nurses station to chart. Sometime later, her grandchildren came to the desk to tell me their grandmother ‘didn’t look right’, and could I come down and check on her.
Obviously they too had never seen a real dead body.
I walked down the hall to the last room on the right, entered, and to my horror I realized indeed, she was dead! I panicked. I ran out of the room, and back up the hall to find the R.N. I was working with (I was an L.P.N. at the time and less senior. I was also seventeen years old, and just out of school.) When I finally found her, the R.N. refused to leave her patient to come and help me.
“What the fuck?!!”
I ran to the next hallway, saw another R.N. I was friends with, grabbed her by the hand and said, “Run!” Hand in hand we ran back to the room, confirmed the patient was dead and called a code blue. Unfortunately my patient died, and I went home and cried myself to sleep that night.
Many years have passed, and I’ve since become an old hand with dead bodies; I’m more shocked looking at dolled up cadavers in caskets, than bodies of the terminally ill. But at some point in life we will all have to come face to face with a dead body and nothing can really prepare us for that moment.
We just have to experience that for ourselves.