One of the old ladies died this week. She has been in our home since I began there over six years ago. What a odd situation - this death! Her family had not been in to see her for more than five minutes in at least six years. Her son worked in the building at times, and another worker would try to get him to see his mom, but all he would say is, "she doesn't know me anymore" and not go. Not even pop his head in the room.
Then she was dying, and the whole tribe appeared. Whispering in her ear, 'we love you so much! We're here with you." Yeah... fat lot of good it does her now when she is unconscious! Where were you for six years when she would make eye contact and smile and try to talk?! But we have to be nice - even to the family. So we tried. We sponged her down as she sweated and suffered those last few hours. Halfway through that, the nurse checked her blood sugars and a young boy - likely a great grandson? - said, "Oh, so is she getting better? Grandma, you're going to get better, hang in there!" The nurse turned to the family in shock - they haven't told this boy (maybe 11 years old) that grandma is dying?! She lost it then and looked at the boy and said as gently as she could, "Grandma is not going to get better. Grandma is dying, and Grandma needs to die - it is the best thing for her now because Grandma has been suffering for a very, very long time, and now she is ready to die." The boy left in tears, and then came back ten minutes later.... but still, better to tell him than to have him face death and absolute shock, too!
But then when she died, she took her last breath and breathed it out. The nurse was there. Then before she quit, one large tear rolled out of her right eye and trickled down her cheek, and she took a half breath and quit. The nurse said she looked so sad dying. The family reacted with that odd grief that is borne more of guilt than of the ache of missing someone. How could they cry for missing her? They hadn't seen her in at least six years! But guilt brings on a difficult grief and one we struggle to comfort. How do we comfort when there is reason for the guilt and we will not say "oh, it was ok to abandon her". We never abandoned their mom - not even when she choked and we had to hold her while she coughed and sputtered all over our uniforms, not even when she threw up for the third time that night, not once. We can only assure the family that it was her time to go. We can not assure them that she knew they loved her and that they had cared for her well. We had no relationship built with them on the basis of shared caring and evenings sitting by the bedside sharing stories of their lives. The family looked in the cupboard and wondered, "Where did she get these clothes from? We don't know these ones." How do you say kindly that they were donated by staff because her clothes wore out sometime in those over six years they stopped seeing her? How do you say that we staff shopped for her like she was our family because they did not? The nurse handled it the best she could and told them they were donated to which they replied, "Oh, how sweet!".
Then they leave, and we grieve together. Not so much for this lady's death as the loneliness of her last years. We loved her. We loved her. Even well unto close to the end, she would look at us and smile and say, "Thank-you". Only a few weeks ago while I was in the room, her eyes caught sight of me and I heard a distinct "How are you?" I went quickly over, looked her in her eyes, smiled, watched her responding smile, and said, "Hi sweetie! I'm fine! So nice to see you. You have beautiful eyes, you know! It is snowing outside again and the wind is blowing cold. Sleep well, sweetie, we love you!" And her eyes smiled back at me, always bright, always smiling when she caught sight of a person.
If only her family could have realized how much they missed....
This weekend, we move on. A new patient will be there. A new one to love and care for .... like they say in a wedding - "until death do us part". Odd use for that phrase, but it is very accurate for our home. We promise to love and care for each one until death comes. That is what I think when I meet each new person.
I counted recently, and I have seen around 100 people come and go. 100 deaths. It is both a privilege and a deep sadness. This last weekend was a low for me, though. It adds up - this constant watching dying.
But I go back... to chose to love the person who comes to occupy the empty bed. To chose to love, once again, until death do us part.