The photograph I used here is my recently deceased sister, Benita. She was passionate about life and did not suffer fools lightly. She was sweet, brilliant and fierce, loved animals and intelligent men.
And I understand why she wanted just her friend to take care of her while she was dying. She wanted everyone to remember her as she was while alive, and her dear friend was very playful and loving. He protected her as she requested. He hired people to ensure that she looked gorgeous all the time; even while not conscious. I know it wasn’t easy for him and I am deeply grateful for his generosity of time and love. (Plus, she knew there was a potential of me lapsing into “mother”, or “nurse” mode and it would’ve driven her crazy.)
I had no idea how asleep I was until I began serving the dying full time. I enjoyed the high sensation of the intensive care units, emergency room, teaching and the variety of tasks on the medical surgical floor that kept me busy, educated and stimulated. I was always being asked a new question, had a problem to solve, a variety of people to speak to, and was allowed a very tiny bit of creativity within my job.
When I chose to work in the hospice and home care department simply because the hours were good for my busy family, I assumed I was going to die from boredom. How awful to actually have to sit and listen to someone for hours and hours? Is their home going to be clean? Pets nice? Will I have enough energy to care for my family and the farm if I’m out all night caring for someone? Is this cut in pay worth it?
After a few months of settling in to a completely different type of nursing, I became open to the lessons that the dying were showing me. And the lessons weren’t always quiet or subtle. They were loud. This one made me sit up and listen:
The way you’ve lived your life is the way you’ll approach your death.
Oh. Ouch. Cool. No way. Let me think about this. What was that you said?
Yep. How many times have you heard “that’s the way my dad wanted it.” Or, “that’s sooo her. I’m not surprised.”
That’s the reason why I try to figure out someone’s personality as soon as I admit him or her.
Here are a few of the questions I may ask the patient if they are comfortable enough to answer them, or I direct the question to their primary caregiver.
-What is your greatest fear?
-What do you know about your condition?
-Is there someone you need to see or speak with before you die?
Then I sit. And listen. I make sure I keep my belly soft because it helps me be receptive. I tune in to my breathing, as I relax my shoulders. I remind myself to remain in non-judgment. This is the only way I learn from them.
In my memoir From Sun to Sun, I have a chapter about a patient named Rick Gallen. As a Marine, he wanted to do this dying his way, on his own terms. He thought dying at home with his family around him was a product of “Hollywood and pathetic romantics.” He was a platoon sergeant and was brilliant leading others. But when it came to allowing others to lead him, he had a hard time. I had a really hard time with this because he was touching on something that I have a hard time with; wasting precious time. I felt that his ego and will were robbing his family of the short time they had left with him. I crossed a professional line with him and called him out a few times. But it all turned out well because he allowed himself to be vulnerable after he had a trusted team who took the time and showed their actions of caring and expertise.