Living Into Dying, Part I

Posted by Eliza, January 30th, 2014

Hospice care. End-of-life care. Death row. For many of us these phrases mean the same thing, and that’s a thing we don’t want to think about. The end – no reprieves, second chances, or pardons. Happily, the opposite is true: in most cases hospice offers the beginning of a fulfilling ending, opens the heart to second chances, and, sometimes surprises with reprieves. (An example is given below.)


This quote sums up what I have seen a well-trained, trusted hospice team prevent individuals and families from suffering after the death of a beloved:

“I held a moment in my hand, brilliant as a star, fragile as a flower, a tiny sliver of one hour. I dropped it carelessly, Ah! I didn’t know, I held opportunity.
– Hazel Lee, WW II pilot and pioneer

How do we find opportunities to live more fully within the dying process? As in any new experience, there’s a trust curve, a learning curve and then a settling into practice. When a team I work with, the New England Pet Hospice and Home Care director and vet tech, first visit, they spend the time needed to get to know you; they understand your family’s need to gain a sense of who they are and how they might best support you.

Their first goal is try to relieve physical suffering of the patient because we can’t live, we can’t wonder at the star in our very hand, when we are crushed by pain. One reason NEPHHC does home visits is to avoid further  physical and psychic stress to the patient – and to loved ones- that a visit to the clinic or hospital adds.

Once pain can be controlled, in consultation with your chosen veterinarian, the hospice team listens for any emotional stress preventing the family from fully engaging with the patient and one another. A trained social worker, clergy member, or counselor listens and may reflection back concerns that may need to be shared, negotiated, better heard. The goal is to work together to help heal conflicts or misunderstandings, clarify goals, and sort out the realistic from the not-so-realistic expectations.

Our number one goal is to help each individual and family find their way to make the most of the precious time they have together. Sharing stories, making new memories, and making amends, if needed, are all opportunities to engage fully with one another, to live in spite of the mortal fact of physical life’s ending.

My role, as spiritual advisor, is to support making meaning of this death – each one unique.  I listen to fears, I walk through the dark valleys with patients and their beloveds, and we also work together to find or create rituals or ceremonies that speak to and of that special life and love.  And then I serve as a companion in the grieving that comes with deep loss.

With the bold and vital aviator Hazel Lee, I agree that opportunities for living open up – even in the process of dying: forgiveness of self and others, new appreciation and gratitude for all that you’ve shared, and – sometimes – more time than was expected.  One of our patients, an elderly cat with renal issues, was expected to live for six weeks; with home hospice care, the cat graduated out of hospice three months later and into home care. This amazing and beloved animal enjoys life with her owner nearly two years later.

So don’t drop the flower, the star, your last brilliant moments together thoughtlessly – seize opportunities for palliative care, for communication with those trained to listen and to help, for spiritual care, and above all for enjoying whatever time we are given.



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Going Into the Dark

Posted by Eliza, December 4th, 2013

Love is a candle in the dark.

Love is a candle in the dark.

I remember the first tough Christmases without my dad. He passed away twenty-eight years ago. When I was a child, Christmas time was his driving us children out to choose a tree after work on a dark and frosty night. And the amazing packages he designed for us – once a set of presents chugged, a line of train cars beneath the tree. I still miss pouring over the Christmas cards with him, indulging in slivers of my mother’s fruitcake. (A great fruitcake, by the way!) He’d tell stories about former neighbors and students, distant relatives, and others who’d reach out to us at least once a year.

The winter holidays have begun, with their festive lights, special foods, gifts, and gatherings. Everywhere we look, on our various screens, in shop windows, on the faces of passers-by, we are encouraged to express joy and delight. Yet for some of us, however, the smiles can be forced, our holiday shadowed by loss. If we’ve lost a beloved companion animal we may find it especially hard, as loss of a pet is often a disenfranchised grief – not considered a true loss by many.

So how do we move through this season with all our being, our sorrow included? It’s important to honor your grief. Denise Levertov, in her poem “Talking to Grief,” encourages us to befriend our grief, not try to chase it away. During holidays that might mean making time for quiet reflection, looking, at pictures of our pet, lighting a candle, sharing stories with a fellow pet lover, or seeking out a pet loss support group. Befriending our grief might mean being grateful for all that your beloved companion shared with you: holidays, trips, walks, and laughs. Addressing your bereavement, in appropriate ways, will be easier, and healthier, than trying to suppress it.

Each winter I find an hour alone, put on some carols, and pull out the holiday cards, sharing joys and sorrows with far-flung people, as my father taught me. I think of his quiet and creativity, his love of beauty and nature, and am very grateful for all that we shared, all that he gave. And this practice gives me, in the midst of bustle and noise, a deeper appreciation for all the lives that have touched mine. Including my beloved animal companions.
Poet and farmer Wendell Berry wrote of the dark times:
“To go into the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
May love and memory shine within you, lighting your way this winter.