The Death Fishbowl

Dead. Pushin’ up daisies. Curtains. Checked out. Deceased. Gone. Passed away.

People ask me how I handle dealing with death all the time. Usually I just tell them that patients don’t die all that often. But it brings about an interesting point. We in EMS see death more often than the general population. When I think back on my experienes, there’s a certain “fish-bowliness” to it.  It’s looking in and sympathizing with the family, without necessarily getting your heart wet with the sadness of the event. With practice, I’ve been able to separate the family’s tragedy from my own life. Maybe I’ve done it too well. I found myself believing that death and sadness happens “out there,” outside the station.

It’s going to happen to each and every one of us. Me. You. The goldfish. The potted plant on my kitchen windowsill (although, given my gardening skills, that death might happen sooner than later.) One day, it will all be gone. Yet that thought doesn’t pervade throughout our daily consciousness. It doesn’t sit forefront in our minds. That’s probably a good thing. If my ultimate demise was constantly on my mind, I doubt there would be a whole lot of skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing, or riding bulls named Blue Manchu. For me anyway, I think there’d be a lot of fear, sadness, and freaking out, with a couple of reckless activities thrown in there. So I, like most people, live with thoughts of death tucked away in the back of my mind.

Then, something happens that shatters the worn falsehoods you’ve wrapped yourself in, keeping you emotionally safe. Where death doesn’t just happen to the goldfish or the potted plant. It happens to people–and not just the people in our ambulance coverage zones.  The red lights of the ambulance don’t penetrate the darkness of that unknown “Great Beyond.” The brick walls of the station don’t keep death from reaching for those inside.

I was fortunate to have gone several years without losing someone dear. Maybe that, in combination with seeing death happening to others, allowed for me to forget that death happens to everyone. Even those I see all the time; fixtures in my life that I’d taken for granted. Even those I work with. Even those I care about.

It’s an interesting and uncomfortable roller coaster. It’s a learning curve–an important one at that. I find myself wanting to spend more time with the people I love. I find myself giving out more hugs, and telling people how important they are to me. It’s unsettling to have that naive, protective bubble removed. I’m no longer on the outside of the fishbowl. Instead, I’m swimming in it.


  1. Sorry for the long lapse in posts. Again. I have another post, about my friend, in the works. But, obviously, I want it to be perfect. I’m currently re-working it. Thanks for sticking with me through all of this!

  2. Death is very real to me. I don’t know what goes on there, but really, it won’t be too long before I find out, will it? Not for me, you or anyone. One thought that came up was that people used to participate in the deaths of their loved ones. Most folks died at home. Back in the 1950’s the funerals were in the deceased’s bed rooms!Death was something we all shared. It was so much more direct! Now, you’re carted away to an institution and oft times, just don’t come back and no one in the family has to be part of your suffering; that’s left to the medics!

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