Last Friday I went to my first full day training as a volunteer for Hospice of Northwest. I came away inspired and energized!
It was about ten and a half years ago when hospice first entered my life. Chuck, my father-in-law, had been diagnosed for the last time with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. His doctors told us he had less than four months to live. Obviously, it devastated our family and for a man who had fought valiantly for nineteen years, it was extremely difficult for him to wrap his mind around, let alone accept.
We had our idea of what hospice was, a morbid death sentence. People would speak in low murmurs about the end, once inside you were there until the end. They drugged you up and you’re out of it, causing you not to care and let go. Thoughts of Lurch from the Adams family sprang to mind.
However, the reality was very, very different. We got a team of highly motivated people that truly cared. Once placed in hospice, if your condition changes, you leave and it actually happens frequently. You decide how alert you will be, your pain level and every other aspect of that time. Essentially, you choose how you will live and the way you will die. That it’s not about dying but living your best life until your last breath.
At the time, I was in nursing school and understood what was happening perfectly. As I watched my family react, I knew we had a very long road ahead of us. And though he put on a very brave face, Chuck knew it too. I decided rather than go back and try to finish school, I would use the training I’d gained to throw myself into helping him transition the way he wanted to. The goal was to be at home with as little stress and pain as possible. My second goal was to get the family into a state of acceptance, so they could spend the remaining months living each moment in the present and aware that time was precious.
This wasn’t easy. Enter Hospice. From the second they came into the picture they changed our experience. Julie was our nurse, Leanna, our social worker and dear Rosie was our spiritual person. I say us because we were a unit in their eyes. Patient and family.
I told Julie from the beginning I wanted to know everything and didn’t want anything sugar-coated. I wanted to understand what was happening so I could best serve this man, who welcomed me into his family unconditionally and whom I loved very much. By the end, she was able to predict almost the hour of his death and everything we could expect in between. It left me prepared to help Chuck, my husband, and his family. There was time to gather and say the things that needed to be said.
Leanna was the one that helped me with what things I could say or do to ease the family burden and open their minds. She gave me the resources I needed for before, during and after. She also helped me with how to hear Chuck. Those months, truly listening to his fears, concern for his family left behind, but also the great joy in his love for them, his life, and his predictions about what our lives would look like in the years to come. It was precious.
Then there was Rosie. Dear Rosie. She told us she was once a nun, and first cousin to Cheech, from Cheech and Chong. She was and is, a kick in the pants. A gracious woman with a beautiful spirit and soul. Chuck was raised Catholic and at the time didn’t really know where he stood with religion. Rosie came to listen, only listen. He was able to talk with her and in sorting out his own thoughts eventually came to terms with his faith. She asked if he wanted to receive the Sacrament of the Sick (Last Rites), he said yes but wanted all of us in the room to receive it too (his daughter, grand-daughter, and myself). Not raised Catholic, I didn’t know what it entailed. Rosie spoke of his hands the instruments of his work and touch. His mind and all the decisions he’d made. And his heart, his great, great love, and capacity to be a warrior. She blessed him and us, it was incredibly powerful and beautiful. Afterward, he was truly at peace. It makes me emotional thinking of it even now.
As a society, one of the only societies I might add, the US doesn’t always value our elderly, they also don’t much like dealing with death. Sending people away because it’s uncomfortable, icky and depressing. For some reason, I have always valued the elderly because they have so much to teach us, so much experience. I’ve also been around enough people, of all ages, who have died and families in grief over tragedies to know they are the most honest people you’ll ever come across. They know what is important in life because their time is limited.
I remember after Chuck passed, feeling like how in the hell did the world continue to revolve. How come everyone didn’t know that a beautiful spirit was now gone. Why didn’t everything just stand still for a moment so we could catch our breath and cope?
It was Rosie that told me he was ready to go. She watched with me, his metamorphosis of disbelief, to the determination to beat the diagnosis, to anger, to grief, to belief and finally to acceptance. He died in his living room, overlooking the lake, his family was all around him and laughing as he took his last breath. Because I sat with him, I knew that was exactly what he wanted. Everyone deserves that kind of blessing.
Rosie performed his memorial service and I still talk with her to this day. In fact, she was one of the first people to reach out to my family upon hearing we were in Vegas and at the shooting. Hospice supported us for the year after his death and helped us to move forward. Which of course is the natural circle of life. I think there are very few people who pass that wish their loved ones to remain in a perpetual state of mourning. It certainly isn’t living, which is what we are here to do for better and at times for worse.
In writing this post I wasn’t trying to write about the morbidity of death. I wanted to show there are people who truly care about all aspects of life and preserve the right for everyone to die with dignity and love. I am so privileged to be embarking on the adventure of joining that cause.