The guest of honor
Updated: Feb 15
I went to the funeral of a patient yesterday; this is not something I do often. Once in awhile a patient and their family finds a space inside my heart and when they pass, I experience grief that goes beyond reacting to the experience itself, and truly becomes a personal loss for me, and the ache and sadness is very real.
While I have only attended a few, my experience has been that going to them helps me to find my own closure. That moment you lock eyes with the people left behind, the ones wearing the formal clothing, tissues in hand, receiving hugs from the friends and family who have come from near and far to say their goodbyes, you smile as they mouth “thank you” and while no words have been spoken, you know they are glad you are there.
When we get a new patient, they usually come to us at the very end of their life. Some are in pain, some have lost hair, some cannot speak, some cannot remember and all of them are dying. We don’t see them at their best and while we might see a photo or two we really don’t know who they once were. At their service, however, we hear about the life they lived, the things they did and the people they loved, who loved them back and will miss them terribly. We are given a quick glimpse of the person before the diagnosis. Sometimes I just sit and listen and smile at the stories shared, and sometimes I cry when they cry, not so much for the loss itself, but for the way the loss has effected the ones left behind.
After the service, I sat down on a bench and watched as this group of people came together to say goodbye. There were a lot of hugs, continued tears and so much laughter, which I know she would have loved. She planned her own party; she asked that people laugh and share stories and that while she might be missed she didn’t want it to be sad. Everyone honored her wishes.
An elderly woman came and sat down next to me. She introduced herself as a member of the church and someone who had worked with and will miss the guest of honor. She asked me how I knew her and when I told her I was one of her hospice nurses, she took my hand and said “thank you”. She asked how it feels to be there at the end of so many lives, and wanted to know why I do this work; we get asked these questions often. I paused for a moment, I looked around at all the people that loved her and I turned to face this woman and I said, “this work is not easy, and death is not easy, but there is something truly gratifying knowing that this beautiful human, who is struggling more than she ever has before, trusts me to make her last days a little gentler”. I do this work, because I believe I was called to.
I said goodbye to the lovely woman who sat down beside me and walked over to my patient’s son, who had several people gathered around him, noticing a tear slowly coming down his face. He looked up at me, he left the group and he walked up to me and we hugged. His eyes were filled with tears as he thanked me for the care I provided for his mother but also for him and his brother. He said “we couldn’t have done this without you”, and I know that isn’t true, of course they could have, and it wasn’t just me it was our whole team that provided the care, but at that moment I welcomed the words and I appreciated them more than he could ever know. And I said, “it truly was my pleasure, thank you so much for sharing her with us”.
As I walked away, I said out loud to myself, “and that is why I do this work”. And I smiled.