What did I do well, what could I have done better, and what did I learn?
When I walked into his room, I knew this was going to be the day that he would let go. I took his hand, like I had every day for the past five days, and it was the first time he did not squeeze back. I whispered in his ear, “you can let go now and be with your wife.” I kissed him on the cheek, and I walked out the door knowing it would be the last time I would see him, and I quietly said “goodbye.”
I started seeing him over a year ago when he was first diagnosed. I am pleased when I can start seeing someone early in their diagnosis, because it allows me to get to know them, find out what they want and what their wishes are, and how they want to be cared for as they start to decline. If I am lucky, I meet their families and hear their stories. And sometimes, like with this gentleman, they graduate hospice and have just a little more time. He graduated twice. I got to know him well. And in the end, he told me what he wanted and I was able to help honor his wishes in the way I felt he and his family deserved.
I visited him every day for five days when he was moved to a hospice house. On the third day he was sleeping. I whispered, “Hi. It’s Gabby. I came to see you and say hello.” He whispered back, “hi Gabby.” And he raised his hand for me to take… and like he had every other time I had seen him over the past year, he squeezed my hand like a hug.
When I walked out of his room that day, I knew it would be the last time I would see him, and I cried. You cry a lot when you work in a field where people die and people say goodbye, over and over again, how can you not? When I got the call that he died, there was a feeling that came over me, which was a sense of urgency to go to him, to be there, to see his family and say goodbye. But I have learned that I don’t always have to be there for the last breath, as long as I make the time that I am there valuable for the patient and their family, that has to be enough for me. This was a hard lesson to learn. And the truth is, in hospice, every day could be the last goodbye, and we must be prepared for that. I din't go there when he died, but I knew in my heart I had cared for him well, his family felt supported, and I did get to say goodbye. That is my closure.
When you work in end of life care you are constantly caught between feeling sad that they are gone, but happy they let go. This is an emotional seesaw we are all continuously learning to find balance on. Do we get attached? Sometimes, yes. I think that is why self-care is that much more important for us to practice. If we stop having an emotional reaction to the end of a life, and the ache people feel when they say goodbye, we should stop doing this work.
At the end of every single day, I ask myself, “what did I do well, what could I have done better, and what did I learn.” My reason for this is to keep finding the balance between the blurry lines of end-of-life care, to accept my emotional reaction as the reminder of how truly precious life is, and to always stay focused on what matters most of all, which is that a human being was cared for well, and that is always my goal.
Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/mishawnkr/