How do You Survive a Loved One in Hospice?

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You walk the halls with other dazed-looking family members and wonder what brought you to this strange facility called hospice. It’s a place of intersections.  On one hand, it’s the world of the living –busy and bustling with plans and schedules.  On the other, it’s the world of the dying, the silent, unknowable spirit world.

Here are 6 things I’ve observed while saying goodbye to my beloved 82 year-old father…

They work to make it cheerful – In the hallway, a man sits and plays acoustic guitar.  Care dogs trot through the halls. My father has a blue hand-made prayer shawl over him knit by a local church group. Brightly colored blankets cover sofas, giving a homey atmosphere.

The staff is polite, competent, and soft-spoken.  I wonder how they deal with the sadness each day, knowing none of their patients will walk out.

People wearing “Family” stickers are everywhere.  In elevators, rooms and the cafeteria, there’s much sniffling and crying.

Outside is Long Island Sound – Poignantly, for all the life ebbing away inside, outside the world is teeming with vitality and beauty.  Seagulls swoop and cry.  The water ebbs and flows as the tide washes in.  Brightly colored sailboats dot the horizon.  A sea breeze blows. Children run toward the sand with pails and shovels, followed by young mothers.  Life goes on.

All the sights and sounds my father used to love are tantalizingly out of reach.  Because of late-stage Parkinson’s, he can’t sit up.  He can only stay on his side and watch the sky and clouds pass by his window.

Love is all that matters – I’ve never watched anyone pass away, let alone someone I care about.  I’m struck by how we need each other at both ends of life, to enter and exit this world.  The dying person is as helpless as a newborn baby.

In hospice it doesn’t matter how rich, smart, beautiful, or famous you are.  What matters is whom you love.  Who loves you?  Who cares when you go?  Who’s there to help?

My brother, sister and I take turns stroking my father’s cheeks, holding his hands.  Other families surround other beds.  An Indian-looking man with gray hair and beard lies nearby.   A woman my age who’s always there and looks like him catches my eye as she walks by.  We nod to each other, two daughters united in sadness. 

My father’s been lucky– Up till a few years ago, Dad led a good life.  He had a healthy, robust body.  He was surrounded by a loving family and lived in Connecticut.  He never knew tragedy or loss.  He had three healthy kids and a long, strong marriage to his best friend.  He always worked.  We always had a wonderful home with food on the table.  He has much to be proud of and we tell him every day.

Yet the end is hard.  The man who loved a good sirloin and ice cream can no longer swallow.  He’s only allowed swabs of lemon ice or water.  The man who loved to sit and talk and laugh can no longer speak.  We all listen when he tries to communicate but can’t understand.  

Everything comes full circle — My mother and I sit on either side of Dad, each stroking a hand.  “Remember when Laurie learned to walk and would come into our bedroom so early in the morning?” she asks him.  My father opens and closes his eyes as if in response.

I have pictures of my parents holding me, their first child, almost sixty years ago.  Since then, so many conversations, debates and laugh sessions have taken place around the kitchen and dining room tables.

Now we sit together for one of our last times.  I thought it would never end.  But it does.  And I know so many families who have gone through this.  Its simply our turn.

My mother did her best. These last few days are the final act in a romance that began 60 years ago on Cape Cod.  My parents met.  They fell in love.  They lived happily ever after.  And after spending the last three years taking care of Dad full-time, Mom should be proud.  She gave her all.  She made my father’s final years as happy as she could.  She was a good wife.

Today she brings her face close to Dad’s, “We had a good run, didn’t we, Cliff? Weren’t we lucky?” My father opens his blue eyes and tries to speak.  She leans in but can’t understand.

A seagull flies by the window, calling out.  My father turns his eyes toward the sound.  My mother leans over, adjusting his blue prayer shawl.  “I love you,” she whispers.

A few days later, my father passed away peacefully.

 

Can you relate to this?  Comments are always welcome and thank you for sharing.

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Laurie, I am breathless and wiping tear-filled eyes as I read this. You are gracious and poised at a time when many fall to pieces. Your words convey a beautiful love of family and tell a story of a life well-lived. I wish you and your family peace and comfort during this difficult time. Best to you, Karen

  2. You've brought up so many memories with this short post. First, yes–all about love. I was more grateful, kind and open when my parents were dying in hospice than at most other times. It's a reminder of what is important and you're surrounded by people who are all experienceing a universal pain in loss. Sobering. And two–music! I remember now a person who came to play for my mom–can't remember what instrument but made me happy that there was beauty in her room . . .

  3. Sounds like you've had your share of these sad experiences. I tell myself its part of life. Dad lived a good, long life and that's what matters. Thanks so much. Laurie

  4. Laurie I am Shelly from Church of the Redeemer. This is utterly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. You are in my prayers.

  5. I am so sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful, heart-breaking, poignant, and very real look at what it means to live and what it means to die. A couple of things jumped out at me: Your comments about needing help being born into this world, and help leaving it as well. And this statement too: "What matters is who you love."

  6. Thanks so much, Christine. Hospice is both intense and peaceful at the same time. Its amazing what thoughts arise, some we never expected. Thank you for reading.

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