As a hospice nurse, part of the comfort I provide for both patients and their families, is a long lingering hug that says, “I got you, I am here for you, you are not alone”. Most times it is for them, but the truth is, I benefit from them as well, in fact sometimes, it is the only thing that helps me work through my own personal reaction after last breaths have been taken. But we can’t hug any more… and I struggle with this.
As this virus races through our world attempting to knock down everything in its path, it doesn’t take into consideration the already fragile population who are ill and dying. Doors to facilities are closed and on lock down leaving patients feeling alone and abandoned and loved ones feeling guilty and helpless. Families are afraid to let us into their homes, so many visits are refused, and time spent with our patients is limited. Families can’t gather to say goodbye, they don’t get the chance for last words, and many patients are dying alone, all of which goes against everything we strive for.
I decided this virus was not going to change who I am, and it was not going to get in my way when it comes to being there for someone at the end of their life. I refused to be another one of its victims, it was not going to stop me from providing the care I think all human beings deserve when they are dying. I would figure out a way to provide comfort and support, just differently.
So when I was called to see a patient who was agitated, restless, experiencing shortness of breath and actively dying, I donned double masks and gloves and provided the very best care I could. With medication, repositioning, comfort care and verbal reassurance that I would get him through this, his symptoms were relieved, and he was able to have a more peaceful dying process. His son-in-law, who had left his wife and kids back at home to come care for a man he considered a father, a brother and a friend was also struggling. The realization of him dying was finally hitting him and he started to cry. I reached out with my double gloved hands and I put mine on his and held it there… he too needed to know he was not alone.
Moments before the last breaths were taken, I had his son-in-law call his wife so that she could be with her father when he died. I was on one side of the bed, his son-in-law on the other, each of us holding a hand, six feet apart from each other, while his daughter said her last goodbyes over the phone. And while this was not our preferred way, his death was without distress, it was full of compassion and kindness and he was not alone. His son-in-law hung up the phone with his wife and started to cry. My instinct is always to offer a long, lingering hug but instead, I reached over, placed my hand on his and reminded him that to feel this ache… is to have known great love and I kept my hand there while he cried. In many ways, that was a long, lingering hug.
We sat, six feet apart, and talked about their relationship. I provided active listening, a safe place to remember and to feel, and the reminder that he was not alone, and his feelings were valid. Two of his neighbors came by to pay their respects, each wearing masks and gloves, each taking turns coming in the room, honoring protocols the best they could. One of his friends started to sob… and he said, “liquid love, that’s what these tears are, so much liquid love”. Their visits were brief, there were no hugs, no one touched, distance was respected, safety protocols were in place, and yet love still filled the room and he was honored and given a proper farewell.
I left there that night feeling comforted inside knowing that even with the barriers and protocols, I was still able to provide the kind of hospice care that fills my heart. I know we can’t do this for everyone, I know we need to honor and respect the rules right now. But this inspired me to try and find new ways to allow families to say goodbye, to allow patients to die in peace, and to find a creative way to ensure that no one dies alone... despite the current obstacles.