Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A holy death

The hospice for which I volunteer has been having lots of vigils lately. Fortunately, we have many volunteers. Still, over the course of the month I've been called on several times to sit with and comfort a dying person.

Normally the hospice sets up vigils when no family members are available to sit with the patient, or when exhausted family members need to be relieved for a bit so that they can take care of some of their own needs. So it's often just me and the patient, holding hands and  listening to quiet music. I speak words of comfort, sometimes say prayers, and just generally offer a ministry of presence.

Last week I was called to vigil with a patient I'll call "Lillian," whose daughter badly needed a break. Lillian was actively dying, and was sleeping soundly with the assistance of morphine. Her daughter was so happy to see me, because she had not gotten away to eat anything since breakfast. She told me some other family members might stop by briefly, and then she went off in search of dinner.

Well, let me tell you -- this is how I want to die.

Family members kept arriving. And arriving. And arriving. With the third wave of relatives came a couple of pizzas. At one point, we had 15 relatives in the room, comprising 4 generations: Lillian, several of her children, her adult grandchildren, and 3 or 4 of their children. Chairs were at a premium, so I gave mine up and sat on the other bed, which happened to be empty.

But the lack of chairs didn't really bother Lillian's family -- they sat on the bed with her, held her hands, talked to her, told funny stories about her youth, and generally enfolded her in love. I was especially impressed by one of the granddaughters, who sat by Lillian and spoke at length to her, thanking her for being her first friend, and for putting up with her as a teenager, and for singing at her wedding. She also encouraged Lillian not to be afraid, and to go to be with her husband when the time came.She offered her own children the chance to say goodbye to "Gigi" if they wished, and all but the littlest climbed into bed with Lillian and did so.

When my shift ended, nine family members were still there, camped out, and takeout Chinese food was on the way. I learned later that Lillian passed later that night, in the bosom of her family. May it be so for everyone.

I should have been so calm and loving with my own parents, instead of acting like a deer in the headlights. I've grown up some since then, I hope. And learned something.

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