Hospice fills last days with light and love

Linda Norlander is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Linda Norlander is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune.

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, a time to honor those who provide end-of-life care. As I reflect on almost three decades of working in this field, I remember the time I answered the phone for our hospice program late one afternoon.

An upset son was on the line. “When is my mother going to die?” He wanted to know.

As a hospice manager, I’d handled a lot of calls from distraught patients and families, but I’d never gotten one like this before.

I said, “Tell me more. What’s going on with your mother?”

He told me the previous evening his mother had gathered the family around the bed to say goodbye, because she thought she would die in the night. In the morning she was still alive, and the son wanted to know when she would die.

Of course, I couldn’t answer that question. I said I’d send a nurse out to check on her and then I would call him back the next morning.

As I talked with the son, I reflected that in our modern times we have very little experience with death. Most deaths still occur in hospitals or institutions away from the control of the dying person or family. So, when death is coming, we could use a compassionate and guiding hand.

That’s how I see hospice — the provider of light during difficult and dark times. As one hospice nurse said, “I don’t lead my patients, I walk beside them.”

Over the years I’ve seen the best in humanity among families, friends and hospice personnel who take on the difficult mission of caring for a dying loved one. I remember the elderly man with no family who was taken in by his next-door neighbor. Even though the neighbor had young children and a hectic life, she cared for him — setting up a hospital bed in her dining room and assuring his last wish — to see his flowers bloom in the spring.

I remember the hospice aide who sang to her patients, the volunteer who illustrated a family history book for a patient, and the bereavement counselor who assured a widow she wasn’t crazy because she couldn’t yet launder her husband’s shirts even though he’d died six months earlier.

I’ve also seen the worst in our medical system. I remember the hospice nurse who admitted a patient recently discharged from a teaching hospital. She said the patient was so scarred and mutilated by all the surgeries and procedures, she looked like the victim of extreme torture. After the nurse visited, she sat in her car and wept for her patient.

I remember the doctor who was enraged because his patient had been admitted to our inpatient hospice unit over the weekend. I stood at the nurse’s station while he pointed a finger at me and declared, “You hospice people. You kill my patients.” The poor patient had been in excruciating pain until she came to us.

Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

I’ve often appreciated both the humor and the wisdom of his words. We don’t like to talk about death or dying, yet it’s as inevitable as birth. One of the most common comments I’ve seen on hospice family satisfaction surveys has been, “I wish we’d known about this earlier.”

When I called the upset son the next morning, he sounded far more relaxed. “Last night Mom gathered us around the bed again. This time she apologized for being wrong about when she was going to die.” He chuckled. “Then she said, ‘But of course, how would I know? I’ve never done this before!’”

She died a week later with her family at her side.

For National Hospice and Palliative Care month, I salute the families who care for their dying loved ones even though they’ve “never done this before.” And I salute the hospice professionals — nurses, doctors, aides, chaplains, social workers, bereavement counselors and volunteers for their compassionate guidance.

May all your lights continue to shine.

Linda Norlander of Tacoma is one of six News Tribune reader columnists who write for this page. Reach her by email at lindanorlander@comcast.net.