Time of Death: How Clinicians Cope with A Patient's Final Moments by Anna Belc

    Anna Belc   was born and raised in Warsaw, attended middle and high school in New York City, and as an adult fell in love with the Philadelphia area, where she studied theater and later nursing. Currently she is living in Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she works as an RN in a rural emergency department. Anna, who is the mother of three boys, is a playwright and translator of dramatic works. She is determined to see the Northern Lights before she heads back east next year. Her piece, " Getting to Know Dying " is in the most recent issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

Anna Belc was born and raised in Warsaw, attended middle and high school in New York City, and as an adult fell in love with the Philadelphia area, where she studied theater and later nursing. Currently she is living in Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she works as an RN in a rural emergency department. Anna, who is the mother of three boys, is a playwright and translator of dramatic works. She is determined to see the Northern Lights before she heads back east next year. Her piece, "Getting to Know Dying" is in the most recent issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.

I found so much comfort in Thomas J Doyle’s non-fiction piece "To Pronounce." He writes so vividly of entering a patient’s room to quietly declare time of death that I find myself standing right next to him, feeling the sadness he is describing. He has learned over time to honor the moment.  I hope that one day I will feel less lost when faced with the end of someone’s life.

In my own piece "Getting to Know Dying," I explore my own feelings about coping with death when in the Emergency Room it is commonplace. Physicians I work with come to the EMS radio to declare time of death from afar then go right back to their tasks. They declare death, over a body into which, a moment prior, they had been pushing life through tubes that are now hanging loose all over. Then they’re gone, onto the next patient.

I found it so valuable to gain insight through Doyle’s piece into how that brief moment weighs on them. What Doyle writes about is how to make it less commonplace. Instead of noting time of death on a chart and moving on with his pressing tasks, he sits and reads about the patient. He reads the notes that will give him the most insight into the life he just declared finished. He, too, is getting to know the dying.

Doyle additionally reflects on the difference between a room where someone died alone and a room where someone died surrounded by family. Facing the family’s grief is difficult yet Doyle’s piece has given me so much strength moving forward. A grieving family fills that room with life.  A daughter climbing into bed with her mother or siblings holding each other reminds us, as practitioners, why life is worth fighting for. The work we dedicate our lives to is to have life and love present in the room despite the death and suffering that surrounds us.  Reading his narrative has changed how I will perceive these moments from now on and has given me courage to remain in the room a little longer.


Anna Belc was born and raised in Warsaw, attended middle and high school in New York City, and as an adult fell in love with the Philadelphia area, where she studied theater and later nursing. Currently she is living in Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she works as an RN in a rural emergency department. Anna, who is the mother of three boys, is a playwright and translator of dramatic works. She is determined to see the Northern Lights before she heads back east next year. Her piece, "Getting to Know Dying" is in the most recent issue of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.