Words Used in Hospice I’d Like to Delete

winding paths

The scene below is complete fiction . . . (Except families face similar situations every day.)

The phone rang before he had sampled the morning’s first cup of coffee. Given the daily flood of robocalls, wrong numbers, and solicitations for money or opinions, he thought about ignoring it. Out of habit, he glanced at the caller ID.

His sister, phoning before dawn on the other side of the country.

He answered, knowing even before she spoke her first halting, gasping, tearful words that their father—the “old man,” the cranky veteran of two wars, and the guy who had not disturbed his wife’s side of the closet a decade after her death—had taken a turn for the worse.

“You better come,” she said. “I think he’s dying.”

Within the hour, he’d called his boss and rearranged his schedule. He bought credit-card-exploding plane tickets and kissed his wife and kids goodbye. Finally settled into a lousy middle chair in a row of three seats near the back of the plane, several thoughts dominated his mind.

Maybe I can get closure.

And then the family can get back to normal.

I hope this will be over soon.

+      +      +

There are certain words and phrases expressed during hospice care—by patients, by their friends and families—that I wish people wouldn’t use. I’ve written elsewhere about disliking it when people announce that “God took a loved one.” Since taking someone could be viewed as the Holy behaving like a mean-hearted thief, I much prefer “God received a loved one.” (But that’s just me.)

There are other words I dislike. The scenario I concocted above includes three: closure, normal, and soon.

Please disagree with my choices and reasons. But even if you agree, and want to purge specific words from your vocabulary, I suspect you’ll still use them. The habits of our language and culture cause certain words to be easy and safe. After all, “everyone” has “always” spoken them.

+      +      +

I want closure.

Do we imagine that with some relationships or situations, a locked door will secure a room that will never be opened again? It’s out of sight, out of mind? The fictional son I created now winging his way toward his dying father could have many reasons to seek closure.

  • Could the son have an estranged relationship with his father and wanted another opportunity at offering or accepting forgiveness?
  • Was the son choosing to be sardined into a crowed plane so he could mutter or shout some final accusations in person? The one who gets in the last word wins?
  • Did the son deeply love his Dad and felt guilty about living so far away . . . and one last visit will erase the unsettled feelings?

Whether our key relationships are rooted in love or loathing, I don’t think closure ever happens. Maybe the hospice care your loved one gets will allow a time to say the right and perfect things. Forgiveness happens! Shared words can lead to mutual understanding! Or you get to launch the perfect angry response your narcissistic, passive-aggressive family member deserved to hear . . .

And then you will feel better?

As writer and minister Frederick Buechner cautioned,

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Whether the dying person is beloved or far-from-loved, the good, bad, and in between feelings continue. No last visit or last word can close a door to our wounded hearts.

+      +      +

I want to be normal again!

This could be the longing of the one who is dying. Or who is caregiver. Or who is grieving.

But death changes everything. In truth, there is never-ever any normal. Normal happened yesterday, but we live in today. Normal is the lovely lie we tell ourselves about what will happen tomorrow, but we live in today. Normal and average exist in research projects, but not in our mundane, unsettling, frustrating, enlightening, grim, glorious day-by-day lives.

  • A caregiver, weary of a routine that traps you at home and influences every item on the calendar, longs for “normal.”
  • The griever, overwhelmed by the restless undertow of feelings, the endless crying or the strangely dry eyes, wonders when “normal” will return.

But when everything has changed, the only guaranteed normal I know of are one of the five towns named Normal in the states of Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

You can use a GPS system to find a nice spot in Normal, Tennessee. Finding normal in your life, after the death, during the grieving, doesn’t exist on any emotional map. But I believe, especially with key relationships, healing will unfold over your lifetime.

+      +      +

She (or he) will die soon.

In other words, we want to know when our loved will die. In hospice, you will ask the team serving your family (the nurse, doctor, chaplain, social worker, home health aide, and even the sweet volunteer who stays with the patient while you grab groceries) how much longer your loved one has. A day? A month?

In a way, we delude ourselves into thinking death is part of a schedule.

And won’t hospice, those professionals that said the patient has “six months or less to live,” be able to spill the beans about the last last breaths? Sadly, there is no way of knowing. You will, of course, hear about the hospice nurse who told the family they should hurry home for a final gathering . . . and the family did and the loved one died and “everyone” was “ready.” Truly, that frequently happens. I am also an enthusiastic advocate for everyone in hospice care reading Barbara Karnes’ brief, elegant Gone From My Sight. Her modest book helps families understand the dying process.

But what may also happen are the unexpectedly difficult deaths, the lingering deaths, the “promised” six months more of life that became a panicked day or two in a rented hospital bed in a living room. Most will probably never be able to stop asking the unanswerable questions when death’s visit has left scars on everyone.

But I would wish for more of asking the “What can I do now?” question.

Death will come. Sooner than you want. Not as soon as you want.

We will continue to want closure or seek a return to normal.

We want a path that will bring us to the end of the hurt and the absence of uncertainty, but the path rarely contains convenient markers (Normal is the next stop!) for the journey of our life.

(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.)

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