This Thanksgiving week I am in Florida, sitting in a Hospice center with a dying friend. As many of you know, tending to the needs of a loved one who is nearing the end of life is a blessing and an honor. But it can also change quickly into feeling like a curse, depending on the levels of fear, anger, denial, and pain being experienced by the person coming to terms with their dying.
The day before yesterday was a good day. From the moment I walked into the room where my friend lay, until I left several hours later, there was a feeling of lightness in the room that was not there the day before, nor the day after. As I entered, S raised her head and smiled angelically in greeting; the dark imprint of fear and anger that was there the evening before erased from her features. We connected in ways that I’d hoped we would again before her passing: quiet talk of shared memories and pleasant camaraderie, even a few moments of honestly facing the facts of her demise as we discussed the slowing of bodily functions, the body’s way of shutting down and bringing closure to life in the here and now. There was an air of peace that felt like sheer Grace as we explored this letting go as I gently rubbed her feet. Gone for the moment were the usual feelings of intense panic, anger, and sadness over her multiple losses of personal control, unfulfilled dreams (she had never written that book she had meant to write), and having to leave all that is dear to her in this life. Not that I judge those feelings as bad. Who wouldn’t be thrown into despair when facing a dread disease like cancer? But, thankfully, while it has ravaged her body and at times darkened the thoughts of my friend's mind, cancer has not destroyed her beautiful spirit.
Just hours before this day of blessing, I was wondering what I personally could do to brighten S's remaining days; to make her last hours memorable. Intention sent. Problem solved!
That morning I walked in to my friend’s Hospice room to find her not only more lucid than she had been in a while, but infinitely more cheerful as she asked if I would read to her from the newspaper (it had been weeks since she had shown any interest in the outside world). Disregarding everything except the editorials she loves, I read to her while she smiled and dozed happily on and off. Later, she shared her fear of being judged by her Hospice caregivers when she couldn’t perform simple functions like going to the toilet and holding her own glass of water. Being in Hospice care is an exceptionally vulnerable position for my fiercely independent friend to be in. She, who had chosen to never marry and who had earned her Ph.D. in psychology as a young woman with little help from her own dysfunctional family, had not relied on others for much physical or emotional support in her adult life. Once out in the open, her concerns about being weak, needy, and insignificant, as well as her fears about the Hospice staff, didn’t take long to resolve. This helped her to move on to her biggest challenge: moving through the process of physically dying. Blessed day! She really seemed to grasp that it was time to let go and let others lovingly care for her as she had done in her counseling practice for so many others.
Ah well, that was then and this is now. Today is not such a light-filled day. But S is not back at ‘square one,’ not by a long shot. She has spiraled up to a higher plane as she circles back to confronting her fears, anger, sadness, and loss of control. As they say in the 12-Step Program: one day at a time. And as I say at times like these: one minute at a time. Each step forward reminds me as a caregiver to give thanks for those special moments of grace, the ones that connect my friend and me, heart to heart. Two mortal beings, facing the same ultimate fear of dying.