Several years ago, our hospice team gathered to discuss the day’s work. Not long after we began, a veteran nurse wept when sharing about the death of one of her assigned patients . . . a child, not yet school age. The nurse had cared for and supported her tiny patient since birth.
How can any infant or child (and their families) be burdened with the phrase, “hospice appropriate,” and yet they are.
Family, friends, doctors and nurses knew this day would come. Born with a life-limiting illness, and given the best possible medical care and an abundance of love, there was no hope for the child to reach the teen years, let alone a “normal” life. However, I’m confident prayers for a miracle were whispered. Bargains were made with God. Any optimistic hint from a doctor’s comments, or rumors of new experimental treatments, was enthusiastically grasped.
The child died. And that nurse cried.
Everyone in the meeting seemed staggered by the death. We knew it would happen. We were not fools. If it didn’t happen last year, it could be this year. If it didn’t happen last month, the child’s death might happen the next day. But death came on this day, and a child’s moments on earth ended, still young enough so that anyone could easily count the literal number of days lived.
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Later in the week I contacted a hospice client, checking on how she was doing. Her mother had died about six weeks ago, just as the weather started warming. She barely survived a first Easter without her mother and now, like a wrecking ball swinging towards her, Mother’s Day loomed. All holidays (both the ones on every calendar and the ones unique to each family) are a predictably tough time for grievers. There are decades of fond memories, of meals shared and gifts exchanged and kids becoming adults, as they wrestle with the new memory of . . . the-day-Mom-died. That day won’t appear on anyone’s calendar. But for one family, it’s date branded on their hearts.
Her Mom was 90 years old. She’d lived a vibrant, exuberant life. Dearly loved by her family, she’d helped raise kids, grandkids and even a few great-grandkids. But the woman I talked with, her daughter, a late-fifties adult with her own lifetime mix of sorrow and joy, success and failure, was stunned by the death. She said of her mother, “I’ve lost one of my best friends.
“I just wanted her for one more day . . .”
She also shared frustration at the reaction from friends and co-workers. Upon learning her mother’s age at death, some expressed a variation of, “Oh, I’m so sorry she died, but she lived a long life and I’m sure you’re glad she’s not suffering.”
They couldn’t understand why, weeks and weeks later, the daughter still cried. Get over it, they said. Get on with your life, they said And she was! She didn’t dwell on her mother’s death, but she certainly felt hurt and loss and sadness.
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A hospice chaplain colleague shared that she’d visited one of the funeral homes in the area. One of our patients had worked there for many years. The chaplain stopped by to say hello to the funeral director and to express sympathies following the employee’s death. Everyone in the office was crying, the chaplain said. Every one. These were professionals. These were people that handled death in every phone call, every office visit, and every business transaction.
I recall hearing about a time my boss—a grief counselor with a well-deserved reputation in our community—visited an assisted living facility to speak with the staff. When the facility had experienced the deaths of several long-time (and well-liked) residents, the staff was reeling. Their boss called my boss. But wasn’t the staff accustomed to loss? Didn’t they see dying and death on a regular basis? However, this time it seemed too much . . . and the facility sought to help them understand their emotions as they—health care professionals all—were confronted by grief.
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As we rightly say about grieving: it’s different for everyone. A child dies. We knew it would happen. And yet a hospice nurse, who has seen hundreds of deaths, still cries. A child, now fully grown and with her own grown children, is staggered by her mother’s death. Employees weep. Professionals cry.
It is like this. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others.
(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