A family gathers
The yard was packed with cars as I pulled into the driveway. A few grand-kids were gathered in a circle out in the yard having a smoke, perhaps relieving the stress of the moment. A loved one lay dying inside.
When a family experiences this kind of grief, they come up against a large number of needs they don’t normally deal with. This is often all new to them. They are caught off guard. They may have more interpersonal conflict and need for community resources, care for the hygienic needs of the dying one, and expertise in minimizing pain in order to keep the patient comfortable.
Before I got to the home, our Wings of Hope Social Worker, Certified Nursing Assistant and Registered Nurse had already visited and tended to the various needs.
Someone cherished was about to leave
Now, as Spiritual Care Coordinator, it was my turn. Close friends and family were clustered throughout the house. All were cordial but pensive, trying to carry on normal, surface conversation while deep and serious thoughts whispered to their hearts. Someone they cherished was about to leave them. It was an awkward moment; nobody seemed to know exactly what to do. So, our patient’s husband Mike* had called for the chaplain. He wanted memories to treasure.
This graying husband, laid-back in jeans and t-shirt matching his temperament, was the warm and gracious leader of the family. He smiled and asked, “Would you like to meet my wife?” We stepped through a tastefully decorated and immaculate home to a bedroom. There, on a king size bed, looking very small, was an attractive 59 year old wife, mother, sister and friend. She rested on top of the comforter with eyes closed in a stylish lavender and emerald jogging suit. Her dark hair was combed nicely around her head on the white pillow case. It had been two days since she had given any response. Her breathing was shallow with no movement of her hands or eyes at all. With affectionate respect heavy in his voice, he said, “This is Laura.”*
I asked the kind husband if we might call everyone together for a time of reflection. Eager to do so, he walked out to where the family and friends were scattered and invited everyone to the bedroom.
On that king sized bed, her two daughters, grand-children, sisters and a couple close girlfriends snuggled around her on all sides – caressing her arms, legs, shoulders, forehead and kissing her. Her husband and son stood at the sides of the bed. I sat at the foot and led them with some questions. “What was her favorite kind of food, reading, music?” They responded, “Lasagna, romances and old country and hymns.” Her son said, “Mom’s favorite song is ‘Amazing Grace’ – let’s sing it.” After we all sang “Amazing Grace,” the girlfriends quoted some encouraging scripture. I prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for the gift of memory.”
These friends and family thoughtfully and eagerly entered into a most wonderful time of remembering the things that matter – the things they enjoyed together and Laura’s contributions to their lives. They cried and laughed in the same breath. Her family and friends were putting her first at the time of her death, just as she had put them first in life.
Still she was lying motionless. We wondered if she was hearing this most profound tribute. We hoped she could hear what was going on in the room, but then we found out for sure. Her husband leaned over those loved-ones snuggled warmly together on the bed, gave his darling a kiss on the cheek, and said, “We love you. We’ll be OK.” The following silent moments were to end in delight. Ever so slightly, Laura moved her head toward the sound of her husband’s voice. She breathed her last word, “Yeah!” One of the young girls saw a tear in the corner of her Grandma’s eye. We knew then she had heard our conversation. As the rest wept with tears of joy, she took four more weak breaths about four seconds apart. A youngster asked me to hold Grandma’s hand and pray as she left this earth to enter eternity.
After she died, the family stood up from the bed and started hugging with heartfelt support for one another. Mike went to each one to speak how much he and Laura loved them individually. He was a calming and reassuring presence. He and his wife’s legacy of love and good will were real.
These were the memories Mike’s family would treasure.
Author: Greg Carlson
Spiritual Care Coordinator
Wings of Hope Hospice
Photo credit: Craig Gardiner Photography