Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Angels Among Us

When we are born, we come into the world amid much celebration and joy. When we die, why isn’t it the same?

Full disclosure at the beginning. Some may find the next few posts uncomfortable to read, because we don’t generally discuss death and dying in this culture. I hope you will stay with me as I share part of my personal story and thoughts on a model for a good death as I recognize the many angels who have chosen a career in hospice, during National Hospice month.

In my lifetime, pets, grandparents, friends, in-laws, my dad and my husband have died. For my dad and my brother in law, a gunshot wound and a motorcycle accident ended their lives almost instantly, mercifully. For those of us left behind, the process of processing their death was painful. We have all been very philosophical, saying “at least he didn’t suffer”. But it still hurts some 20+ years later when I want to run something by my dad and have to grapple with the quantum physics/time-space continuum involved in that conversation. Needless to say, I’m snapped quickly back to the present moment! We have the conversation; I just have to listen a little more closely for the answer!

Since pets have chronologically shorter lifespan, we are generally prepared for them to die in our lifetime. I completely agree that the grieving process is intense, but philosophically, humans tend to be more prepared for a pet death. For my pets, I have been grateful for the caring counsel of a marvelous team of veterinarians!

For everyone else I’ve lost, hospice staff and volunteers have often been involved, at least to some degree. In the cases where hospice was involved, they were generally brought in at the last few days/weeks of life, primarily to help manage pain and offer some comfort to the survivors. And I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude for their marvelous work!

When we received Bill’s ALS diagnosis, we did a lot of soul searching. We suddenly found ourselves facing a lot of questions about death and dying. And….facing a question neither of us planned to discuss at only 23 years into our relationship. I’m not sure when we planned to have the conversation exactly, but I promise you, it wasn’t then! And from a now experienced vantage point, questions like “How do you feel about death?”, “What is quality of life for you?”, “Do you want to be buried or cremated or something else?”, “ What kind of funeral would you like to have?” need to be brought up sooner than later. Yikes!

As I write, I am so grateful for the counsel of Dr. Will North, one of the finest human beings I have ever met, and a darned good neurologist! During one of our early visits, with Will, Bill needed to know the particulars of what the last few hours and minutes of his life might be like. Not an especially surprising curiosity from a guy who had spent a most of his career in rescue situations and had seen his share of death. Me….I started to squirm and look for the exit route, knowing full well there is no escape, either from ALS or this particular conversation. Damn!

With his characteristic candor and amazing bedside manner, Dr. North walked us through what the final days and hours would likely bring for Bill. Turns out that the ONLY kind thing about ALS is that in most cases, it allows the patient a very peaceful passing and I can report that is what happened for us. Once Dr. North had satisfied all of Bill’s technical questions, he broached the subject of hospice and wrote out a prescription, with the understanding that we could “fill” it whenever we were ready. I remember our walk back to the car and ride home as exceptionally quiet as we each processed this new information.

I don’t remember who finally broke the silence but it was as if each of us was waiting for the other and finally couldn’t stand it anymore! We agreed that we were too early for hospice – Bill was still walking at this point – but we agreed that when the time came, we wanted hospice involved.

To be continued….

Also posted to Fashionable Giving

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