Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Breath - Our Warmth, Our Life

Breath, Condensation, Breath of life
Photo by Sarah Nitt


[Old English bræþ from Germanic from Indo-European, from base meaning 'burn, heat'. 
In sense 3 etc. replaced Old English æþm, anda.]

1 An odour, a smell, a scent. Long obsolete except dialectical. OE

2(a) obsolete. A vapour given off by heated objects etc.: reek; steam. ME-M17

2(b) obsolete. Air exhaled from anything, or impregnated with its exhalations (compare with sense 7 below). E17

3(a) Air exhaled from the lungs (as made manifest by smell of sighs);
generally air inspired or expired in respiration. ME

3(b) The air blown into or out of a musical instrument. poetical. E17

3(c) PHONETICS. Voiceless expiration of air. M19

4 The faculty or action of breathing; existence, spirit, life. ME

5 An act of breathing, a single inspiration. ME

6 A whisper; an utterance, a speech; spoken judgement or will. ME

7 A gentle blowing (of wind, etc.), a puff;
figuratively the enlivening or favourable influence (of);
(passing into sense 2b), a whiff, a trace. LME

8 The power of breathing; free or easy breathing. L16

9 An opportunity or time for breathing. Compare with BREATHER. L16

Three times in my life, I've had the privilege of being with someone at the moment they die. The circumstances on each occasion were different: one was my Mum, who had suffered a sudden stroke nine days previously, one was my grandmother, who was elderly and had been in hospital for some time, and one was a stranger at the scene of a traffic accident. With each, however, there was a serenity and peace as I sat and held their hands, talking softly as I watched their breathing grow shallower, until at last and with a final certainty, they drew in their last breath and exhaled it softly. And then everything was still.

While it might seem morbid to remember these moments as a privilege, I can't regard it as anything else. These were three women who had lead full and productive lives, had raised loving families and had experienced times and overcome hardships that I could never begin to understand, and it was my place to be with them, to comfort them and ensure that they weren't alone, as that majestic journey ended and they went through that final mortal transition from life to death.

Death is horrific, of course, and the range of emotions that accompany it is extreme. I didn't know my grandmother well, and there was the sting of inevitable regret for a woman whose life I didn't really understand; the stranger, who was to me just an anonymous middle-aged woman who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place when a passing lorry shed its load, suffered horrific injuries, the sight of which haunted me for many months, as did guilt and doubt over whether I could have done more to save her; and Mum, the most loving and courageous mother a family could ever have, whose passing left the gnawing pain of loss and a void in each of us that could never be restored, nor would we want it to be, by anyone else.

It was a privilege and an honour to be with each of these women in their final moments, to know that they understood they weren't alone and could draw that final breath while hearing a gentle voice and feeling the warmth of a hand holding theirs. These experiences haven't made me more afraid of death; perhaps they've made me less so. But I do hope that come that time for me, when the heat of my breath is fading, that someone is there to talk softly to me, to hold my hand, and to tell me that I'm not alone.

Dead of Winter by Eels

Do please leave any comments below.


  1. That's so beautiful, that you see it as a privilege. I'm sure each and every single one of the women you assisted was thankful not to be alone in their final moments. I know I wouldn't want to be alone. I think very few people would want to be.

    Now, on a different subject, it's odd how breathing is such an automatic thing to do, it doesn't require any thinking, your body just does it. Actually, I think that's quite amazing.

    1. Thank you, Bibi. And yes, I think each was thankful.

      The automatic nature of our breathing truly is amazing. There are many automatic vital processes, of course, but breathing is probably the most outwardly visible, which is maybe why it's associated with life and spirit. And it requires no thought or effort at all - that really is wonderful.

  2. That was very nicely written Ed.
    I've been present once when a loved one has died, and though it's a very sad moment, it's also a very special one.
    Ok, now I'm bubbling!

    You're right, everybody should have somebody with them when it's their time. We weren't brought into this world alone, nor should we leave it that way.
    Now, since hubby has gone to work, I'm off to hug the dogs!

    1. That's a nice thought - about not coming into this world alone. Thank you Jingles.

  3. Their voices are starting to fade now,
    My grandparents, too tired to carry another hundred years,
    My younger brother, in too much pain to carry another month.
    I struggle to recall their laughs,
    Their cries, their vows, their objections
    Their commendation, their confessions
    Their hopes, their regrets.
    But what they voicelessly said with their last breath,
    I will loudly repeat verbatim until I take mine.


    "A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth."

    - NWT, 2013 Revision.

    1. That's a beautiful poem, C.

      I really found it moving.

      Thank you for sharing.