Life, Death, Hospice & Holidays

The Last Christmas

I am reflecting this Christmas Eve on the people my hospice serves.  Most of our patients are celebrating the last Christmas they will ever have.  Families are poignantly aware that at this time next year, their loved one will not be with them.  I think that for some, this thought must be agonizing.  For others, it’s bittersweet.  Perhaps the difference has to do with the age of the person who is dying or how long they have been ill or the richness of the life they’ve lived or haven’t had the chance to live.

This knowledge, that this is the last Christmas, heightens one’s awareness of who and what is important.  The smallest things can become memorable.  A touch.  A smile.  An apology.  A statement of love, thanks or gratefulness.

It also occurs to me that this could be my last Christmas too.  I just don’t know it yet.  What might I be missing because I haven’t been proclaimed terminally ill?

What’s Truly Important

If I knew this was my last Christmas, I probably wouldn’t mind that it’s raining instead of snowing outside and that the rain makes my hair frizzy.  I wouldn’t fret about the homework I’m not doing.  Breaking a polished nail probably wouldn’t even be on my radar.

After work tonight I decided I would think about only what’s truly important.  I didn’t use my umbrella to walk from my car into the grocery store.  Instead, I was grateful that I could walk and that I had enough money to buy Christmas breakfast.  On the drive home I smiled when I predicted that the driver of a car stopped at a crossroad ahead of me would pull out in front of me and he did.  (This replaced my usual reaction which involves not smiling.)  Once home and doing my chores, I didn’t mind falling in the mud on my way to the barn.  I made a point of catching both kittens hiding among the bales of hay and looking at them looking at me with wide, round eyes.  And now, as I write, the silence in my home is rich.  I am so lucky that my mind works.

Is it better to spend the holiday in awareness that it’s your last one or is it better to not know that after this one there are no more?  Is this question even worth pondering?  I think deciding which is ‘better’ is not worth my time.  Sometimes I get caught up in comparing things that don’t matter.

What I do think is worthy of consideration is how would life be different if we had a pretty good idea of how much time we had left.

Life Expectancy

An oncologist (cancer physician) once told me that in his experience people aren’t built to understand having a life expectancy of, for example, one to five years.  That kind of time frame makes it difficult to plan for the future, yet it’s a long time to constantly live in the moment.  He believed that people with a life expectancy of a year or less had a kind of peace that the rest of us don’t have.  It’s easier to understand that each landmark date is the last time that holiday or birthday or anniversary will be experienced.

Imagine that.  Someone who is dying having an edge on the rest of us.  I want peace, but I’d really rather not be terminally ill to get it.

The Power of a Single Light

Several years ago, a friend of mine attempted to set a world record.  It involved running along the shore of Lake Michigan.  I joined a few of his other friends at the beach to cheer him on.  It was a chilly, rainy, cloudy day, and when it got dark, it was just chilly, rainy, cloudy and dark.  There were no stars.  I felt miserable and then felt small because I was dry and I hadn’t been running for hours.

I remember walking in the darkness from the turn-around point about a half-mile back to the starting point with only the sound of the waves to guide me.  Midway, I couldn’t see where I’d come from and I couldn’t see where I was going.  I knew I was walking on sand and the water was lapping at the shore a few feet away to my right.  I even had a moment of fear, silly as it seems now, thinking I might have taken a wrong turn and would be wandering in the cold all night.

I noticed a faint glimmering ahead and walked with a little more courage.  As I neared the source of the light, I saw that it was a powerful floodlight housed inside a small lighthouse-type structure.  I was immediately grateful to the person who had decided to turn it on at that moment.  I wasn’t any warmer and I still had a ways to walk, but now I knew I wasn’t alone.

The rest of my short journey was illuminated, and I travelled the distance without incident.  Feeling a little sheepish, I didn’t share my experience with anyone and I don’t know if anyone else felt the same.

My friend had to stop running because his knees were swollen, but, even though he doesn’t know it, I will forever be grateful to him because of the experience he helped me have walking in the dark, cold and alone, graced with light from a stranger.

Hospice at Night

For those of us blessed with sight, being in the dark can be frightening.  For those among us who are very ill and those who care for the very ill, nighttime can be frightening for the same reason.  We may feel alone and uncomfortable.  We don’t know where the lightless path will lead or when or how it will end.

I know that individuals in hospice care and their loved ones who care for them are comforted by the knowledge that a nurse is only a phone call away, even in the middle of the night.  That she or he will either solve a problem over the phone or will show up at the door to help, no matter the hour.  And that when death comes, even in the night, the nurse will come to comfort the living and bring normalcy to an experience that can feel endlessly unreal.  A beacon of light in a dark, cloudy sea.

It strikes me that I have received my Christmas Eve gift:  the knowledge that even on the most difficult of journeys, there may be people I don’t know who are willing to help – whose job it is to help.  That I can rely on them and I don’t have to go through the darkness alone.

I realize that the stars are still there even when the night is cloudy.  And that seems especially meaningful to me on Christmas Eve.

Theresa Lynn, RN, PhDc
Executive Director

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