You’d better believe I believe–the lessons from the dying

Pamela - Scotch Plains, New Jersey
Entered on April 19, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: carpe diem, death
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This I believe: Try, please try, to slow down to learn the lessons in life—the big ones, the little ones (which are some of the best ones), the good ones, the bad ones, the sneaky ones, and obvious ones—then try to do remember those lessons…especially from those near the end of theirs…

I have been a hospice nurse for 16 years. I have been invited into the profoundly intimate experience of assisting patients and their families through their journeys through the end of life. Some journeys were so full of grace and goodness that I could not keep from weeping –humbled to my core. Some journeys were filled with so much suffering and pain (no matter what) that the image of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, “The Scream” still comes to mind today when I think back on those cases. A decade later, I can drive through a neighborhood where I cared for a patient, now long dead, and remember the way her husband cared so tenderly for her and how when she died, I was the only one who could get out on a “blizzardy” night to get to their house. I was there for hours in that quiet house, just the elderly husband and me, sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, telling stories, and waiting for the funeral home. I have watched babies die in their parents’ arms and cling to one another as the funeral home took their only son away in a blue and yellow striped blanket. Some stuff you never forget.

Many families often call us “hospice angels.” While I know this is a heartfelt compliment and I am passionate about the work, if you knew me personally or reported to me, you would certainly know better. On the other hand, one elderly grandmother living with her dying husband once pulled one of my coworkers aside and whispered to her in heavily-accented English, “I don’t know what you did in a past life but it must have been pretty bad that you came back as a hospice nurse.” While I found her observation absolutely hilarious, I have never forgotten it…About missing the lessons, having to come back for the lessons.

So, I have learned to pay attention and honor that that is around me and as is my lesson, to share the joys. A small finch drinking from a spring-rain puddle, a joke so bad that it’s funny, the curl in my husband’s eyelashes, walking in the snow on a moonlit night, giving a surprise party, oysters on the half shell, an afternoon nap, Stevie Winwood singing “Can’t Find My Way Home,” my Golden Retriever lying on his back wagging his tail and grinning…..what if I’d missed all of these grand lessons that my patients and families taught me about the love of this life?