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hospice

Grief, Guest Posts

The Sacred Silence of Visiting the Dying

August 23, 2017
hospice

By Larry Patten

Before meeting my new patient, I admired her Ford Mustang. The snazzy red convertible was parked on the street, by her brother’s driveway.

The license plate frame declared: Fly Away!

While unsure if it was her car on that first visit, the frame’s message represented a solid clue. I knew she was a forty-something flight attendant.

This was years ago when I worked as a hospice chaplain and spent considerable time driving to see my patients. Most of them resided in their home or with a family member. I probably visited the red Mustang’s owner on a half-dozen occasions. From our first awkward handshake to the final moments beside her hospital bed in her brother’s living room, our patient-chaplain relationship deepened. She learned to trust me. I certainly learned from her as she continued living and loving while cancer wrecked her body. Even at my last visit, her short gray-blonde hair was stylish. Her make-up, aided by her sister-in-law, was impeccable.

The red Mustang’s owner never spoke a word to me.

The cancer, seemingly everywhere by the end, had started in her throat. Long before entering hospice, she’d lost the ability to speak.

***

Nowadays, I spend hours at a different hospice on the phone. According to my lengthy title, I’m a Bereavement Support Specialist, involved in what other staff and volunteers in other hospices do: contacting family and friends after a loved one’s death. Part of a hospice’s mandated requirement is to support the grieving.

I make a bunch of calls every week.

When someone answers, I try to gauge how she or he is doing and make sure they know about our additional resources for grief support. On the phone, long minutes pass with me only muttering, “I see” or “Really.” I want them to know I’m paying attention, but don’t want to interrupt their stories, questions, or worries. Most calls are brief. A few of the hundreds of calls made every month cause me to feel that what I shared, or how I listened, helped someone find a smidgen of hope in their day.

Long ago, my parents said I had “the gift of gab.” By background I am a pastor and spent years preaching, striving to capture people’s attention for at least a portion of a twenty-minute sermon. In the churches I served, there was also endless phoning: cajoling folks to serve on committees, work with the youth, or teach Sunday school. So many phone calls, so many opportunities!

Though no longer preaching, I’m still talking.

I press the numbers on a phone and reach out to another wounded, fragile person. After asking if this is a good time for a chat, I fulfill the Medicare guidelines to comfort the grieving.

***

The red Mustang’s owner never said a word.

Our first encounter was awkward with a capital A. I was a stranger, the guy from hospice. I babbled. I struggled to find questions that allowed her to shake her head “No” or nod a “Yes.” Her doting brother, who’d convinced her to move in with his family when the disease made living alone impossible, hovered in the background. He didn’t want some fool of a chaplain to upset her. This was his little sister and only sibling. Her dying would crush him.

With each visit, I babbled less and posed easier questions.

We prayed.

We held hands.

We made lots of eye contact. There were stretches of silence. Initially, it felt uncomfortable. Eventually, the silence felt sacred.

She had a million dollar smile. She forgave my mistakes and fumbling questions. She never saw my tears . . . though after leaving, passing by her red convertible as it gathered more dust every week, I would weep.

She died less than two months after our first visit. Her brother buried her ashes in a cemetery with a view of the Pacific. “She loved the ocean more than flying,” he once said to me.

***

Professionally, I understand the value of words. Even a simple Uh-huh contains the power to gently remind a person that I am still listening to her or him.

But I also know silence’s power: touch, eye contact, shared smiles.

Some dread spending time with a loved one who is dying or grieving because they don’t know what to say. So I say, say nothing.

Enter the room. Enter into their day and let them know by a caress, a nod, a grin, or a tear, that you are there.

And so are they.

Larry Patten is a writer, a United Methodist minister and currently serves as a Bereavement Support Specialist at a hospice in Fresno, California. Larry has participated in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and is published locally in The Fresno Bee) as well as in national magazines like Spirituality and Health and The Christian Century. He can be found online at www.larrypatten.com (musings about faith) and www.hospice-matters.com (thoughts on dying, death, and grief).

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Binders, Compassion, Guest Posts

Evangelist of Joy

December 12, 2016
dog

By Devra Lee Fishman

“Whatever you do, try to keep Mabel off of the furniture at the hospice.  We are struggling with that at home so we need to be consistent everywhere she goes,” my brother says on a rainy, matte gray Friday when he stops by my house to hand off the puppy he is raising for the Guide Dog Foundation.  Mabel bounces toward me all paws and wagging tail, an evangelist of joy wrapped up in fur, spreading her own sunshine on this gloomy morning.

Mabel is a 3-month old Golden Retriever/Labrador mix with a coat the color and feel of corn silk. During the next year or so that she will live with my brother’s family, Mabel will go everywhere they go – supermarkets, restaurants, theatre, sporting events, even airplanes.  Their goal is to make sure that she has good house manners and is comfortable in any social situation before she returns to the Guide Dog Foundation for intensive job-specific training.

I need to reinforce the behaviors that my brother’s family instills in Mabel and I take the responsibility seriously.  I do not want to be the reason she struggles with, or falls behind in, her training, so I thank my brother for the tip and lift Mabel into my car. Continue Reading…

death, Guest Posts, loss

Feeling My First Goodbye

January 20, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Alana Saltz.

I wasn’t sure my grandfather was going to be aware of what was going on when I read to him from my novel. As I share the words I’ve written, he laughs at my narrator’s self-deprecating humor twice, and that’s how I know that he understands me. After I finish, he struggles to find the words to tell me what the story is about.

“The girl is very…it’s…very internal. It’s mel…mel…”

My sister and I take guesses at what he’s trying to say. Melancholy? Melodic? He shakes his head no. I never find out because he trails off and stares up at the ceiling. I hear the churning of the oxygen machine, see the silent face of Clifford on the TV screen, the show on mute.

Finally, just when we think he’s asleep again, he says, “You have a gift with words.”

I smile and say, “Thank you.”

Three hours later, I’m sitting in the front lobby of the hospice, watching the sun set over snow-covered roofs and bare trees. I’m thinking about how my grandpa barely knew me, only saw me once or twice a year when I visited St. Louis, yet he supported my dream to tell stories and have them heard. He helped me pay for grad school so I could study writing. But I’d never shown him any of my work until today.

There’s a whir of sliding doors behind me. Murmurs of nurses and patients down the hall. Clean couches, bright lights, my mother beside me talking to someone on the phone and complaining about his treatment, the sky dimmer, deeper, darker.

Continue Reading…

cancer, Guest Posts, motherhood

My Mother’s Hands.

November 12, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black
By Denise Barry.

Growing up, I didn’t really look like anyone in my family.

Adults would study me and proclaim that I must have come from the Milk Man. When I was mad at my family, for whatever reason, I’d use this as a tool to feel sorry for myself, casting myself as the outsider.There was, however, no denying that I had my mother’s hands. My three sisters had long, beautiful fingers, like our father’s. I, on the other hand (literally), had my mother’s short, stubby fingers. Back then I refused to see the resemblance. I was afraid that if I looked like my mother, then I would act like her too. My mother was part traditional/part tyrannical. At least to my child’s eye. She cooked, she cleaned, she baked chocolate chip cookies. But buried deep in the pocket of her apron there was a sadness, an insecurity and a loneliness so extreme it manifested in many ways. She was easy to anger, hard to please and in need of a lot of attention.

As a little girl I was always trying to please her and be her favorite, even if it meant tattling on one of my sisters. I needed to be deemed the “good” daughter. As a teenager I rebelled. I wanted my mother to know how much she’d disappointed me. As an adult, I craved her time and attention: a lunch out, a day of shopping, a visit to my house for a coffee chat. But my mother flatly exclaimed she preferred to stay home.

Years after I was married, I was able to bury the need for my mother. I focused on my own family, pretending it was enough.

On the very day my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, everything within me changed. It wasn’t about me any more. I didn’t care how she had made me feel once upon a time. I only cared about how she felt, and how to get her through this.

Continue Reading…

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