I was out walking in the woods one chilly April afternoon. For weeks, Nature had been with-holding her gift of warmer, sunny spring weather. It seemed as if it had been cloudy forever. And then suddenly rays of sunshine broke through the tree limbs. I smiled and my heart said a prayer of thanks for the unexpected but most welcome gifts of warm sunlight. As I soaked up the rays, I was aware of how grateful I was for this sunshine because it had been so scarce. Walking in the filtered sunlight, I thought of Flora, Emma, Daisy, Bob, Jane, Charles, Hazel, Eldon, Mandy-all of these people and so many more. As a hospice social worker, I was privileged to be with them and their families in the last months of their lives. And I thought of the similarity between my special appreciation of the scarcity of time left in my friends’ lives, which had brought a special gratefulness, intensity, and intimacy to their days. In the midst of the daily activities, the
physical discomfort, the emotional struggles, there was an overriding awareness of how precious these days were, precisely because they were fleeting.
Working your way through
- These families were experiencing some of the most difficult, yet most special and spiritual times in their lives. As you journey with your loved one through this difficult time, I’d like to share with you some of what these people taught me about living while facing the reality of dying.
- Accept the uniqueness of the dying process. The adage “We bring to our dying the resources of our living” seems most often to be accurate. We need to respect individuals’ rights to complete their lives in ways that are meaningful to them. Not everyone reaches the kind of acceptance about impending death that we may hope he or she will. Knowing this can help us minimize unrealistic expectations. My friend Bess fought cancer for three years. Even when she was so weak she could not open the school door, she taught music to the children she loved until two weeks before her death. It was not easy for those who loved her to watch her struggle, but out of respect for her choice to live as fully as possible until she died, we journeyed beside her as best we knew how.
- Give the gift of your presence. The clearest message from those who are dying is “Don’t abandon me!” When there is no cure, the comfort of presence is the best medicine. And it is best administered in regular doses by loved ones. The need for intimacy and people who care often intensifies at this time. Sitting together, holding hands, hugging, laughing, talking, listening-all are gifts of presence that have a healing power which transcends the physical body. These are ways we can be God’s hands and heart in this world. When you listen to your dying loved one, listen with a “third ear” –not only to what is said, but to how it is said and to what is not said. Ask gently: “How can I help?” “What’s this like for you?” “What worries you the most?” “Is there anyone you especially want to see?” “Is there any unfinished business you want to take care of?” And, remember, it’s O.K. to say, “I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to know all the right things to say-no one does. Reminisce with your loved one about the memories, the cherished values, the accomplishments, or other legacies of the person that will continue to live on. This kind of life review is important closure for everyone.
- Share your feelings. Don’t waste time trying to protect one another from the reality that your loved one has a limited life expectancy-you will miss the intimacy and meaningful conversations that can make this time so precious. Ideally, family members are able to share their deepest feelings when a loved one is dying. It’s a treasured gift to hear someone say, “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “I remember…,” and “I’ll miss you.” If spoken feelings don’t come easily, consider writing a letter to your loved one expressing your thoughts and feelings you may choose to read it aloud together. You may need to preface the conversation with “I know this won’t be easy for either of us…” or “You don’t have to respond, but please allow me to do this for myself.” Sharing your feelings will leave you with precious memories and fewer regrets, both of which will be important in healing from your grief.
- Allow others to help. Most of us take pride in being self-reliant. But when serious illness invades your life, it’s time to put aside pride and allow others to help. Almost every hospice family I’ve worked with said, “I only wish I had called for help sooner.” If there isn’t a hospice program in your community, check on the availability of visiting nurses from the county health department or a home health agency. Your friends or members of your congregation may be willing to prepare meals or provide other practical help. You will be giving them a precious gift by allowing them to reach out to you.
- Take time for yourself. It’s impossible to care intensely for a person who is seriously ill without needing time away. Get out of the house or the hospital room, at least for short periods of time. Go for a walk, go shopping, get a message or a haircut-whatever will help renew you. Share your feelings with a trusted friend, family member, or clergyperson. If you need a shoulder to cry on, say so. Tears are God’s release valve for all the pent-up feelings of sadness, worry, and fear that accompany a terminal illness. Don’t use staying with your loved one 24 hours a day as the measuring stick of your love. Remember, you need to love yourself too. You will be able to be more present to your loved one if you are taking care of yourself.
- Sort out unhealthy beliefs. Oftentimes people suffer as much spiritual pain as emotional or physical pain because of their beliefs about how God operates in the world. Some people believe that illness happens because God is punishing them for something they have or have not done. I remember when a young man, Gene, was dying of a brain tumor. His wife had to endure the additional agony caused by church members who accused her of not having enough faith and thus keeping Gene from healing. God does not inflict this kind of suffering on us. When we are facing the tragedy of losing someone we love, God suffers with us. Seek guidance from a chaplain or clergy member or spiritual director who can help sort out misconceptions and beliefs.
- Make memories together. Be intentional about creating memories. I remember the joy of an Easter egg hunt for grandchildren in the bedroom of their grandfather who was dying. I remember the laughter and fun of day trips to nearby tourist attractions while a friend was still physically able to enjoy them. I remember birthday parties, special visits from faraway relatives and friends, and singing and praying at bedsides. Create memories that will bring you moments of joy now and sustain you later.
- Offer a final gift. Sometimes when a person is physically ready to let go of this world, the spirit seems to keep him or her here. If a person senses that a family member is clinging, unable to let go, he or she may try to stay alive beyond what seems physically possible. I have witnessed profoundly spiritual moments when a family member is able to say, “I will miss you terribly, but I love you enough to let you go.” This is the ultimate, unselfish parting gift to a loved one.
“There is no hope,” people often say when someone is dying. But I believe hope is always with us. Hope is like a kaleidoscope, changing with each new turn. Each hope carries us through that particular moment in the journey, then it changes and adapts to a new reality. When we first hear the diagnosis, we hope for a treatment that will cure. Later, we may hope for a longer life than the doctor is predicting. Beyond this, we may hope that the pain can be controlled or that person can leave the hospital and enjoy the garden at home once again. My mother hoped to see another grandchild born before she died-a hope that was fulfilled. The ultimate hope may be for a peaceful death surrounded by family and friends. My hope for you is that in the midst of this difficult time, you will have glimpses of sunshine that will illuminate how precious each moment truly is. May you feel God’s presence with you every step of your journey.
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