Something to Think About: a blog on end of life
For the last 30 years all of my patients have died. I will be sharing observations and ideas that I have gathered from working with people in their final months of life.
You may not agree with what I am saying. I don't pretend that what I've figured out about living and dying is "capital 'T' truth" or that it is absolutely how everyone dies. This blog is just an expression of my experiences and ideas.
I'm an older nursing student who is starting a new position as a NA2 in a
lovely hospice facility. I've never experienced death from a clinical
standpoint. I have a concern. We, as hospice caregivers, will surely
become emotionally attached at different levels to our patients. How in the
world do we handle repeated losses of our patients from an emotional
standpoint. I know we will shed tears with each one, but what is the best
strategy to keep one’s emotions in check and be a beacon of strength for
the dying patient and then for the family after the passing?
This is such a powerful question. How you address it will affect how long
you remain working in hospice and end of life.
What stands out is your statement, “I know we will shed tears with each
one.” Actually, not necessarily. In fact if you cry with every death you will not
be able to sustain your balance. There definitely will be times when a
situation, family, or patient touches you on a deep level and you will cry. An
example: I walked into a room with a college boy and his girlfriend sitting on
a hospital bed listening to music. Before I could even be introduced I burst
into tears and had to leave the room. As his mother was standing with me
in the hall I told her I had a college son the same age and I saw and felt
what it would be like to have him in that bed. We talked and actually
became friends when all was over. The point I am making is that something
touched me on a personal level. If that depth was present with every
patient and family we would not be able to continue the work.
Death is not really a part of most professional caregiver’s job descriptions.
It IS for those of us who work with end of life. Most of the patient/families
we care for, we care for as people who need assistance but to whom we
are not personally attached. We guide them, support them, care for them,
but not on a personal level. We care for them on a professional level that
includes kindness, compassion, empathy as well as medical and end of life
education. This is our job and we can do it well without getting emotionally
We have to acknowledge that we are swimming against the current of
mainstream medicine. Death for those who work in end of life is not failure
or the enemy. It is the ending of the work we do. Our satisfaction in the
death of a patient is that we have helped create a sacred experience and
memory. A memory that will influence a meaningful and balanced grief
process. With our patient’s death we want to say to ourselves “job well
done”. No tears are necessary.
There will be times when something happens in the course of your work
that will shock you to your core. I remember a patient killing herself in a
horrific manner and having to contact our hospice psychologist to debrief.
There will be situations that you must retell, debrief, and share with
someone who can listen (not offer words, there won’t be any), but allow you
to unload so that you can move forward to the next patient.
It is being able to share with those who know the challenges of our work
that will keep us healthy and able to continue. It is not a sign of weakness
to share. It is a part of our responsibility to ourselves. On Friday nights after
work, a group of nurses from my office would meet at a local establishment
for beverages and conversation. There was a companionship of likeminded
and like-challenged people unwinding. It showed each of us we
were not unusual in having what ever feelings we were having, that we were normal, that we were not alone.
Something More about Tears on the Job...
It is a particular calling for those of us working with end of life. Perhaps more challenging than other kinds of caregiving. With the high number of turn over with end of life caregivers, I thought that our community needed support in how to take care of ourselves. From that vision has come my new DVD, Care for the Caregiver which will launch in February. There will be more information on my FB Group Page, End of Life Care and Bereavement in the coming days.
I am printing this letter and my reply at this holiday season because I believe this man is not alone in his feelings of hate, anger, and regret. Maybe by hearing his story others will find understanding. I don’t talk about my personal experiences, not the place of a professional caregiver. However, sometimes sharing your story helps create a bond of understanding and possible healing.
This email may get a little long, please forgive me. Through the years I have never found anyone I could talk to, one that could truly understand but you!
I have written to you before, the latest being when I told you what it was like to watch my wife being forced to carry to term our anencephalic daughter.
This article "Stuck in Grief" also hits home because it was 38 years ago on December 22, 1978, that she was born & died.
On that day, as I sat outside the delivery room, I cried, I prayed to both God & Satan they could have me, my soul, my being, any and everything of me either wanted if my daughter could just be normal healthy & whole. Obviously bargaining didn't work. So where was God & where was Satan. As you cannot have one without the other. How could a just loving God allow this to happen to a child. So much for there being a just loving God.
At that moment I started hating God, Satan, preachers, religious leaders, politicians, everyone & Christmas. And 38 years later I still hate the holidays, I hate Christmas most of all! I find absolutely no joy at all in any of the things to do with the holidays. As people bounce around with all their joyous b.s, they have no idea of the hurt & anger & heartbreak that is within me. And when you try to share they either don't want to hear or don't care because it doesn't affect them.
I asked my wife's doctor to allow me to view my daughter, which he did, but I could only stand & stare. He offered her hand to me but I couldn't take it (a decision which has haunted me ever since). I held my most prized bird dog as he was being euthanatized so he would know he was loved & not alone for his final breath & yet I could not even hold my dead daughter's hand.
It was certainly not a very bright or fun Christmas time. And my own birthday was coming up just 7 days after my daughter died.
Every year I always say nothing good ever happens at Christmas & nothing ever does.
I don't remember ever sitting down with my wife, holding each other & actually crying. We allowed the hospital to use whatever was viable for donation or research after they performed an autopsy (at my request) so there was no funeral, that decision still haunts me too! I know I made the best decision I could at a really bad time but it doesn't make it any easier. So I guess the crying and venting you see at funerals as a way of relief I deprived myself of.
My wife did say that our daughter did come to her in a dream & tell her "she was fine & happy &...." How do you question someone's dream, it's her story who am I to call her a liar. But nothing like that has ever happened to me. So needless to say people who claim to have had things like that or that God performs miracles just make me want to scream at them that they're full of b.s.
People have said things happen for a reason, 38 years later I still have never seen or been given any enlightenment as to why things happened. And to be honest it really ticks me off when people say it too.
I understand what it's like to be stuck & not able to get past something & have no idea of how to do it. Those who say just lay it down have never been through it. If they had maybe they could have a glimpse of that person's feelings.
People have told me "hating " is a waste of time & only destroys you. The people you hate don't know it, & they could care less if you do hate them, because it doesn't affect their lives.
I know all this to be true, but I just cannot stop those feelings of hate.
As I finish this long email I look at the clock & I know in a few hours it will be the 38th anniversary of my daughter birth & death. The hate, anger, and sorrow is still there and it's there every year & won't go away.
I'll end this now with an apology & a thank you. Apologies because it is so long & thank you because you took the time to read it & most of all because you understand.
I am glad you feel comfortable enough to reach out to me during this life challenge that becomes more intense at holiday time. Here is my two cents worth:
I don't know that there was a reason your daughter died at birth and I don’t believe that everything happens for a specific reason. I do believe there was a life lesson in everything that happens to us. For you, your wife, and your other daughter there was a lesson. The lesson was how to go on living when a dream is shattered, when life did not go the way you planned or wanted. That is the lesson. In looking back on your life it looks like you handled your lesson with hate (your words), guilt, and regrets.
It is not too late to examine the lesson, to rethink your reaction to it and to put all those tormented thoughts and feelings to rest. I am not expecting you to change but am saying you have the opportunity, if you want to take it, to reevaluate the lesson life gave you.
You may be thinking how can Barbara say these things to me, she hasn't experienced the loss that I have. She doesn't know what it feels like. BUT I do. I too had a baby girl, actually twin girls, die. They died in my belly a month before I gave birth to them. I knew for a month they were dead in my body. I did not see or hold them when they were delivered, no funeral. I delivered them, spent the night in the hospital and went home empty. I was just given a card with "Baby girl A and Baby girl B" written on it. I know your pain of anger, feeling cheated, wanting to blame someone other than myself.
What I have written to you is what I came to believe in order to move on with a healthy life.
In the Blog article "Stuck in Grief" I suggest writing a letter to the person that died and saying from your heart what you need to say that you didn't say before. I recommend that you write your baby girl a letter. Pour your heart out to her and offer to her your wanting to let go of all the negative feelings you have been carrying all these years. Tell her, from the bottom of your heart, how you want to be free of this heavy weight you have carried all these years.
You might also start a yearly ritual of blessing your daughter. On the day of her birth and death light a special candle and let it burn through out the day. Talk to her, tell her you miss the opportunity her life would have given you both. Then at the end of the day blow out the candle, put her to rest, until next year. Give it a try. I think you have carried this long enough.
Something more about When a Dream is Shattered...
We often feel quite alone with our "dark" feelings. We need community. Others who can listen, offer ideas and support. That is why I have a FaceBook Group, End of Life Care and Bereavement ~ a place where we share. I hope you will join us.
Dear Barbara. A friend of mine lost her son back in 1987. I knew him in high school. Even now all she talks about is her dead son even though she has two living children and grandchildren. The conversation always goes back to her dead son. I listen, but the same stories keep flooding back. Her pain is real. Is there anything else I can do besides listen?
The death of a child is probably the worst loss we can ever have. Our children are supposed to be our legacy to the world. It is in the Parents Handbook (therefore law) that parents die before their children. A large piece of ourselves dies when our child dies. Our grief knows no end. The pain is etched in us forever.
In normal grieving, time begins to lessen the intensity of the emotional pain of our loss. There is a process to grief (see My Friend, I Care) and although we never forget our loved one who is gone we eventually learn how to live without them. We eventually build a different life with our memories. Some people however get stuck in their grief. They just can’t seem to figure out how to move forward balancing their loss with the life they are left to live. This being stuck is very common with the loss of a child. There is a part of us that thinks if I keep talking about my loved one who is gone it will keep them alive for everyone, that no one will forget.
What more than listening can you do? Probably nothing. Since it has been 29 years, my guess is her way of thinking and interacting is so engrained in who she has become she can’t think or change to any other way. Her family has probably adapted to her just the way you have (They may have more scars. It sounds like they lost not just a sibling but a mother).
As a friend we have limits to how much we can challenge an acquaintance’s choices in living. I have some very close friends that I could talk with about the pain of loss and how it is affecting the family and others but most of the people I know I would be uncomfortable going into their personal space uninvited. Sometimes just being there and being a listener is our greatest gift to another.
Something more about "Stuck in Grief"...
"One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say." --Bryant H. McGill My Friend, I Care is quite helpful with the grieving process - some use it as a bereavement card. (And it's cheaper than a Hallmark card!)
Barbara, My mother is in final stages (or is she?). Has not had food or drop of water in 16 days. She is in a coma state and receives morphine several times a day. Her only illness is dementia. I guess my question is how much longer can she survive?
Friend, I don't have an email address to write you back, so I am putting my response on the Blog in hopes that you will read it. Your question is so time sensitive this is the only way I could think to respond quickly.
Many factors will affect the time in which your mother dies. Her body size is the key factor, the heavier she is the longer it will take. Also I am wondering if the morphine is being given with IV fluids. If so then she is being hydrated and that can extend her life as well as contribute to increased congestion. If she has no other disease process I wonder why she is receiving any morphine at all. Dying is not painful, disease causes pain and dementia is generally not physically painful.
If she has had no water of any kind for 16 days I would expect her to die at anytime--maybe before I write this.
I do not have enough information to be specific as to the unfolding of your mother’s dying process. I do know that dementia is not a disease in itself. It is a symptom of many different diseases. If there is no disease process other than dementia then her body is shutting down because of the lack of food and water. I know that sounds harsh but if she is in a coma (I am wondering what caused the coma?) then by not intervening with artificial feeding and hydrating you are allowing death to arrive in its natural, normal way.
Remember there is a huge difference between just breathing and actually living. I alway ask “Would you like to be attached to machines and just breathing with no other cognitive functioning?” Most of us would not. It is not wrong or a “sin” to refuse medical intervention when quality of living will not be an expected outcome.
In these last days with your mother talk to her as though she can hear and understand you. Tell her what she has meant to you. Tell her of your love. Use this special time to say goodbye.
Something more about "16 Days Without Food or Water"...
The use of narcotics with end-of-life pacients is confusing. I clear up much of that confusion on my DVD, NEW RULES for End of Life Care.
Dear Barbara, I have seen many dying "euthanized" or given fairly heavy duty morphine drips to allow "dying in peace". I've also seen doctors recommend it to "hasten" the painful process of dying. Most people do not believe that death is not painful. I've also seen patients who ask for morphine to hasten the process.
That's my question... should a dying person be offered that choice and would it be considered medically legal?
A great question. You have actually touched on a line of thinking that a lot of people have about the use of narcotics at end of life: that the narcotic is used to end life sooner than if dying were allowed to follow its natural course.
I too have seen heavy doses of morphine given to end a life of suffering prematurely----but not often or on a regular basis. Most medical professionals approach intense pain at the end of life by giving what they deem appropriate to relieve the pain. Our objective is to relieve pain not end a life.
More common in my experience is the patient asking, not in the hours before death because they are generally non-responsive, but in the months before death to help them end their life. My answer, and I think I can speak for most healthcare professionals, is “I cannot do anything to help end your life. I can do everything in my power and knowledge to keep you comfortable”.
Now to your actual question “should a dying person be offered that choice (the choice to have enough narcotic given to end their life) and should it be considered legal? With our assisted death laws in several states it now is legal to voluntarily end your life sooner.
In the days to hours before death, legally offering the patient the option to end their suffering by an excessive dose of narcotic is really not viable because most people are non responsive. They are not in a mental place to make any kind of rational decisions. The patient will not be able to say yes or no to such an offer. Now the family can, BUT most of us are not strong enough emotionally to live with the decision to end our loved ones life prematurely, even if it is just by days or hours. That is the main reason I am against making it a legal option to end someone’s life prematurely in the name of comfort. There are too many ways that legal ability can be misused.
However, I am a firm advocate of giving however much narcotic is necessary to lessen a person’s pain. Sometimes the only viable option is to give enough narcotic to create a sleep state (induced coma) but not enough to stop breathing.
Something More about "Does Morphine = Euthanasia in the Dying":
Pain management of the dying is a complicated, emotional piece for the families of a loved one who is dying. Clarity on the subject is available in The Final Act of Living. Advance Directive information is available in the final section of the book also.
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