They didn’t know each other, and they only knew me in the briefest and most problematic of days.
One Was Dying. Another was Near Death. The third was During Grief.
I think of them now, years—and decades—later, equally grateful and humbled for what I learned while spending time with them. As always, I will try to change a little or a lot of their story to disguise each guy’s true identity.
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The Guy Near Death . . .
His rented hospital bed was in the living room, angled for him to see the Christmas tree but far enough away so his family wouldn’t trip on the presents stacked underneath the brightly decorated evergreen.
He was near death when I first visited.
He could talk. Could hear my prayers. Could squeeze my hand and smile.
Guy Near Death was the first hospice patient I ever met. In my 2019 book (A Companion for the Hospice Journey), my several encounters with this man were mentioned in the acknowledgements. As a pastor serving a 3-point charge (I was the minister responsible for three churches in the same region), I not only tried to respond to the needs of my congregations, but was often asked to reach out to others in the community. A church member, one of many dairy farmers in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, called to ask me to visit his neighbor. Being a farm neighbor meant Guy Near Death was a few miles down the road. He owned several hundred acres and scores of Holstein cattle that were milked twice a day, 365 days a year. His family had worked this land for over a century. He had been given six months or less to live.
I arrived after Thanksgiving and before Christmas. In the prior days, several bone-chilling snowstorms had elbowed through the low hills of southern Wisconsin. My shoes crunched ice as I approached the Guy Near Death’s door. The fields around the house were like frosting on a sheet cake that had no horizon, making the scene equal parts beautiful and intimidating.
It. Was. Cold.
But the house was warm.
And there was that hospital bed.
Guy Near Death was dozing, but welcomed me with a weak handshake. Then he drifted off. Woke up. Drifted off.
Most of my time in the first visit, and in the next visits, was with the family. There were kids and grandkids, the random cousin, the pop-in visit from an uncle or aunt, the neighbors who brought towel-wrapped casserole dishes and retreated back to their pickup truck. There was Guy Near Death’s wife. She had a sweet smile, even as she wept. She was always the one to ask if I wanted coffee. Her daughters, shadowing her, would ease a plate of holiday cookies by me.
Guy Near Death and I talked, prayed, often with his wife cradling his hand. I got out of the way when the hospice nurse arrived. Since I wasn’t formally part of any hospice “team”—just a pastor from the closest town—I tried to keep my hellos and goodbyes as brief as possible.
Though it probably wasn’t, this seemed the almost perfect hospice-supported time of dying and death. There was a loving, multi-generational family. No one complained that a Christmas tree and a hospital bed shared the same living room. The grandkids got a chance to play, but also to spend time with grandpa . . . the Guy Near Death.
But this was hard work. It’s difficult enough to work a dairy farm. It’s difficult enough, day by week by month, to move through a never-ending Wisconsin winter. Their patriarch was approaching his last breath, and everyone pitched in. The cows were tended by neighbors. Meals were prepared by daughters accustomed to having their mother ban them from her kitchen. Even the youngest kids handled their chores . . . hey, Christmas was coming and they’d better be good!
One of the lessons I received from this family was how complicated and overwhelming caregiving can be. Even though I can romanticize the wintertime wonderland, and have gratitude for a toasty home and fresh-baked cookies, this was a place with death. Everyone’s schedule was ruined. Everyone was sleepless. Everyone cried, sometimes privately, sometimes openly. All the research over the years continues to confirm that people prefer to die at home. Hospice care can make that happen. And while this was a family able to help Guy Near Death stay at home, it was . . .
Hard, hard, hard work.
Because of that first family, and because of my first prayers shared with a Guy Near Death, I came to be grateful for what hospice care can do when families are supported during one of the worst times of their life. However, my appreciation never forgets a family’s immense sacrifices. Whenever I’m asked about hospice, and what it will be like to care for a loved one, I tell the truth. There are often precious moments, where what is said or done or shared will be a treasure that lasts forever. The right words came at the right moment. A hand was held when the last breath arrived. But there will also be demanding, boring, scary, exhausting, soul-wrenching moments (and days and weeks and months). The lovely mixes with the ugly. Dread and boredom are your companions.
How privileged I was to enter into their lives; witnessing grins and tears. Guy Near Death died, surrounded by family as the Christmas tree cast sparkling lights and dark shadows across the room.
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Next up, tomorrow: Guy During Grief . . .
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by