“But, Helen, please do this for me. I just can’t bear to tell them. I don’t want to be the villain. This is my own family we are talking about. They cannot hate me now.” She pleaded with me, with eyes swimming in tears and voice quivering. She was the daughter of a hospice patient. Not only that, but she was also a registered nurse, fluent in the language of end of life.
But, things were so different now, as she struggled with dual roles – both daughter and nurse. She knew these were heartbreaking conversations to have that often would leave the receiver upset or disgruntled with the messenger. She could not risk that. She needed her family as much as they needed her right now.
“We both know that the oxygen isn’t helping, at this point,” my words felt like echoes in my ears because they were words that had been uttered to me as my mom was passing. But, the irony was that this time, those words were ones flowing from my mouth. She nodded her head in silent agreement. “I know it’s just for my family. They can’t get behind taking it off. I want it off.” Her mother, comatose and agonally breathing, was already grayish in the face. Her oxygenation was in the low 80s despite being on 4 liters. Her body was unable to process the oxygen. It was well on its way to shutting down.
At her request, I gathered the family and explained what was happening. They knew she was passing. But, as is the case in a lot of families, they worried that removing the oxygen would somehow hasten her passing. But, with the most gentle words I could find, my eyes went from her husband, to her son, to her sister – explaining that she was trying to pass and nothing we could do, oxygen included would hasten nor prevent that. It was brutal, I can’t lie. But, that’s what I am expected to do. What I did not expect was that the next day, I would have to have an even more gut wrenching conversation.
The patient held on overnight. Her saturation in the 70s. She had terminal secretions, which caused her to have that dreaded death rattle. Honestly, I was a bit puzzled how she was holding on.
“Did you all tell her that it’s ok to let go?”
My question hung in the air like a heavy cloud.
The silence that followed was deafening.
“I did,” she started. “But, no one else has.”
Our eyes met and her pain became mine. I could tell by how her eyes were pleading with mine what her next words would be.
“I just can’t do it. Please don’t make me tell them to tell her to go. They will get so mad with me. They will think that I don’t care and that I just want her to go. I do.. I mean… I don’t….”
Gathering my courage, I went looking for her father. His childhood sweetheart, the woman he worked beside every single day… she was dying. My words felt clunky and inelegant in my head. I tried different combinations but they all seemed to sound juvenile in light of what was happening.
I took a deep breath.
“I am so sorry for what is happening… The love you have for her is palpable. What has to happen next will be so hard for you. But, it will be the most profound gift you will have ever given her. You have to give her the peace of mind of telling her that you will be ok when she isn’t here. Yes, of course you will miss her, but, you have to give her a gift. This will be the most gracious and powerful gift you will ever gift her… you have to tell her that it’s ok to let go. Let her know you will be ok – that you will miss her but that letting go is ok.”
A week later, I checked in with the daughter. Her mom had passed and she was so excited to share news with me. “My dad went fishing today. He hasn’t done that in years. But, today, he got up and dusted off his fishing gear. By telling him whatever you did before my mom died, you have given him his life back. He feels free to just live again.”
I silently cried during our conversation. Grateful that God or the universe used me to give this man the gift of his life back.
You see, hospice isn’t just about dying. It’s all about living.