Reflections on Life and Death

Life and death. We tend not to think about them until they are thrust upon us. And yet…they are in our sphere every moment of every day. This week we spent a lot of time at the hospital and hospice. And because of our experiences there, this post has been more than a challenge to share what it meant in an adequate way. This is in fact, the third draft and I’m still not convinced it’s conveyed well enough yet.

While volunteering over the past 4+ years, we’ve had many encounters where we’ve seen the impact of a death on those actually there. We’ve been in a room when a patient passed away, a mere 90 seconds after Sam allowed a relative to place the hand of the patient on his front paws. We have visited hospice moments following a patient’s passing and have tried to provide compassionate support for the family and staff. I’ve reflected in past posts how stark I found the fact that some people, despite being surrounding by the most caring staff, too often die with no relatives nearby. I’ve lamented that others have had their loved ones glued to an electronic device rather than being part of a ritual that we all will go through. It’s been confounding and troubling at the same time.

Yet this visit, things played out differently. We arrived slightly before our shift began and knew the hushed convening of people at the front desk signaled something had ‘happened.’ A group of long faced relatives stood outside the closest room with a large man dressed in a dark suit. The nurses behind the desk all softly smiled at the sight of Sam and his tail wagged wildly but something was clearly different. And then it began to unfold.

Lutheran has an amazingly compassionate staff who provide comfort, dignity and support for those spending the final stage of life with loved ones in familiar surroundings. With each patient’s passing, they conduct a beautiful ceremony with a Tibetan singing bowl as the body is removed and carried out to the transporting hearse. We had never experienced this somber spiritually touching ceremony before but that was about to change. This video will give you an idea of the sound (although there is no running water or crickets but I think you can get the picture and feel the peacefulness).

This week our interactions were quite intense as we witnessed the honoring of a life who passed with family and friends nearby, just the way it should be. Sam sat very erect next to me somehow sensing the reverence required despite being among some of his favorite nurses. Any other time, he’d be moving from one to the other engaging them and relishing the ear scratches but when the bowl started its melodic tone, he was still as a statue. The tones were soothing and continued rhythmically until the body and the family walked down the long hallway to the exit where the hearse was parked outside. I was so moved and it took both Sam and I several long minutes to gain our composure for what was to be yet another remarkable encounter.

Today’s visit was met with lots of hushed quiet voices, more so than usual. It’s understandable. Everyone there knows when a patient dies and they all honor the dead with quiet deference. And yet life goes on in areas throughout the facility. Housekeeping continues to clean, patients are tended to, reports filed. Care provided. We received the usual comments about Sam’s calmness and sweet nature, his freshly trimmed haircut. We were told to visit with a fellow in a room down the hall from the patient who had passed away. As I walked by, an older woman sat reading a book, glancing up and smiling broadly. She gestured for us to come in and tried to rouse her friend. Sadly, “Earl” did not open his eyes despite pleas from his friend, “Valerie.” Next to his chest was a large stuffed cat, the kind of stuffed toy that makes noises when there was movement nearby. “Meow, meow.” Sam did the classic dog head-tilt which made Valerie chuckle and I introduced us as she apologized, saying, “Oh, that silly cat. I don’t know why he has it…he raised show dogs for years. Guess he just wanted to create some racket when he first came in a week ago.” While he may have been more animated a week ago, it was clear Earl was not the same man today. A frail small man lay in the bed, his eyes semi-closed, breathing deeply. She laughed about Earl’s sense of humor and I sat down next to her as she talked while Sam sat between her knees. She gently petted him, staring deep into her eyes and he moved even closer. I could tell we’d be there a while as Sam sorting out and addressed her ‘needs.’ Never mind Earl. It was all about ministering to Valerie in Sam’s mind. We talked about how they met, how long they had known each other and their days in the world of dog shows. Earl had had a black standard poodle up until recently who had been the apple of his eye. She chatted as if we were old friends and as I listened to her tales about Earl. Sam stayed focused on her face and she just kept repeating how wonderful he was. After quite some time, he slide down in front of her and curled up between her legs. We weren’t going anywhere soon. And so we continued to chat. She shared her thoughts about the book she was reading and was delightedly to learn the author was also one of my favorite mystery writers, Donna Leon. Many of her novels have been transformed into the PBS series, Brunetti, about an Italian police commissioner in Venice. After a long visit, she said how much she wished Earl could see Sam and expressed regret that Earl didn’t get a chance to say hello to Sam. We wished her well, finished up at hospice and then made our way over the main hospital for even more moving and intense visits with many people. Sam was on his best behavior and totally crashed when we arrived home hours later. We were both fully spent after a day sharing stories about the living and paying homage to the dead.

Hopefully I can continue to rot out my thoughts about our visit even more and share our experience from West Pines which was truly amazing. I am still trying to wrap my head around the intensity and how to share them adequately so that they do in fact convey the incredible privilege we have visiting with the most vulnerable and the needy. 

Live, love, bark! ❤︎

68 thoughts on “Reflections on Life and Death

  1. I think you shared your thoughts and your visit beautifully, just like you and Sam so beautifully shared the love that everyone needed that day and all the days you visit. Our Visiting Pet Program visits take a break for summer, but not a single day passes that I don’t think about some of our favorite nursing home staff and residents. And I pray that we find everyone in good health and spirits when we return in September. There are quite a few who will break our hearts when they leave us.

  2. What a very moving day and one that I wouldn’t forget. You are a very special person for what you and Sam do. You change people’s lives and that is very special. Thanks for writing about it and I think you wrote it very well.

  3. Thank you for this. I went through this with my dad when he quietly slipped away on March 31st after a 3 month illness. I’m still processing and trying to believe it all happened but am so thankful for the wonderful hospice staff that we had to help us. It is truly a gift and a calling. I hope Maisie and I can someday help others in the same way, but right now it is too soon.

    1. So sorry to hear your dad passed away. Sam sends tail wags if comfort and you’ll be in my thoughts and prayers. Maise would be a welcome addition to any program when the time is right for you. Hugs

  4. Thank you for all you and Sam do for folks in need. My mom passed in between visiting hours at the hospital, and Dad and I were actually the first ones to realize she had left this world. Years later, Dad did the same thing. My brother and I may not have been physically there at the moment they passed, but we were there in spirit. And they both knew it somehow, even though they went peacefully in their sleep. They knew that Doug and I would “take care of” each other and their work was done on earth. At least that’s the way I choose to see it.

    I always feel for folks who spend time in the hospital or hospice without any family or friends to visit with them. How lonely that must be. And I believe it takes a special kind of person to be able to spend time with them. I had an experience when my grandmother was living in a nursing facility that to this day makes it impossible for me to be that kind of person. It seems trivial now, but it affected me deeply. So, thank you for doing it in my stead.

    1. It’s a strange feeling visiting with someone you know won’t be leaving to go home but think when we visit them know there is someone there, even when they’re unconscious and especially family and their is some comfort seeing their expressions. Sorry you lost both your parents, I cannot fathom dealing with that loss but know it will be fast approaching my and my siblings as our parents are in the late 80’s. If we can make someone, be they patient, family member or staff feel just a bit brighter by our visit, there is some comfort knowing we all have to leave at some point.

  5. What a moving post. As you know, I sit with dying patients who have no family and, sometimes, with patients who have family but who want someone there at all times, if they need to go eat, shower etc. It saddens me how some people get to the end of their lives and have no one – I hold their hands and try to imagine their lives, the people they cared for and who died before them. Or the rifts. Recently I sat with a man, in his 60s, who looked very tanned. I imagined he lived on the streets. He did have family in SF who refused to come. What had happened there, I wondered. I consider sitting with these strangers a privilege and it has deepened my understanding of death. I am sure it has done the same for you.

    1. One word. Absolutely. Thank you for doing what you do. Sam is the catalyst in our case and as an introvert makes it easy for me. Listening to Val was such an honor, especially how Sam regarded her.

  6. Monika – I am catching up on my post reading and just now read this one. It’s is very timely as my sister just passed away last week after being in home hospice for about ten days after a year long battle with a very aggressive cancer. We were fortunate that she had friends and family with her for much of her time during these last days and she passed peacefully and was never in any real pain. Thank you for the work you and Sam do for patients who are not as fortunate as my sister who was surrounded by loved ones as she passed. I’m sure this work must take it’s toll on both you and Sam and in spite of that you continue to serve. Bravo and blessings.

      1. Thanks Monika. Your post was timely and helped to remind me how lucky I was to be with my sister often during her final days and that so many members of our family and friends were nearby. So thank you for that.

        1. All too often we see way too many patients who are alone and it breaks my heart. At a time when we need people the most, they walk that last trail my themselves and it makes me sad. I’m sure your sister felt the love of her family that last week despite any conscious action. You and your family have my sympathy as well as my admiration.

  7. What a very special thing you and Sam do. It sounds so intense, and I am sure that Sam makes a big difference to everyone he touches. I can imagine that these visits have a deep influence on you – not many people see human death very many times in their lives. But, as you said, it’s the last phase of living. Thank you for all that you do.

  8. It is really hard to describe things that touch you so deeply in words. There just doesn’t seem to be adequate ones to describe our feelings sometimes. I think you did a marvelous job, however. I finished reading your post while listening to the bowl ceremony. It really did add to the “experience” and made me tear up a little myself.

  9. Seeing as you left me in tears, I think you are conveying the emotion and intensity of it very well. I greatly admire what you and Sam do. ♥

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Jan. You really touched me and though I hadn’t intended any tears but hope people understand the importance of celebrating life with friends and families while they can. In this day and age of rancor, it’s even more important to reach out to peeps. Hugs and tail wags.❤︎

  10. I must be pretty amazing to be a part the journey of some many. Thanks for being there for those who need you the most. Thanks for joining the Thankful Thursday Blog Hop too.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this highly intense experience as a professional working to help vulnerable people in need. As a social worker who has worked with hospice patients, I personally know how emotionally draining yet rewarding hospice work can be. Please know you are truly doing life-altering work that genuinely helps people in various stages of their lives as well as in death. Totally spiritual and moving stuff. Please be sure to do self care after these sessions/visit! I am curious- I know Reiki is often a treatment option offered in hospice. Have you ever considered animal reiki post hospice visits for the dogs?

  12. That is so intense. I am sure that Valerie needed you and Sam as much or more than her friend. It is so sad when someone has to leave this earth alone. It is wonderful that you can be there for them. ♥ Thank you!

  13. What an emotional week. I am glad you shared. I am swallowing back tears. You also made me think about something else. I have been trying to figure out what Lucy and I can do together, and, after the wonder dog, it is difficult. People respond so beautifully to her loving ways, and you have watered a seed that got planted yesterday. At work (story about that later) she insisted on/couldn’t be held back from greeting the folks coming in for food vouchers, and won over a little 7 year old boy who was scared of her at first. I may see if she is fit to be a therapy dog. She is still a bit over-enthusiastic, shall we say? Thanks, Monika.

  14. Wow…that was a tear-jerker! Very moving and thought provoking…What wonderful work you and Sam are both doing! I know you give Sam all of the credit, but he takes his cues from you and since you are a very enlightened, empathetic person, your dogs are as well! Thank you for sharing this post.

  15. Sometimes I find that I want to do a topic justice … express my feelings and impressions adequately … and in expecting so much of myself, I become overwhelmed and tell myself I’ll wait until I find the words … which of course, never happens. For some reason, your last paragraph made me think of that 🙂

    1. Exactly! I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I couldn’t begin to express what I was feeling or what was going on. Some days are better than others though, right? And I guess that’s what makes it all worthwhile. 😇

  16. It’s a subject that no one wants to examine. In the past 10 years, we’ve had 2 ancestors pass. They did it in the right order. He had an active mind but his body gave out. She had a good body but her mind went. After he left, she thought he wasn’t there because he was out golfing. Maybe he was.

    1. Thank you, Jan. It was a hard post and I’m still not sure my feeble attempt conveys the right tone and hope it prompts people to think about life and death in a constructive way. Happy weekend.

  17. Beautiful post. This topic keeps nudging at me lately. There was a really good recent NY Times article about the “symptoms” of dying that we should all read. I also happened to see an incredible Ted Talk about death by an amazing hospice care provider named BJ Miller. You are privileged to have the kind of knowledge about what a good death can be…a lot of people don’t.

    1. Many thanks. It’s too bad Americans in general don’t do a better job of dealing with something everyone experiences at some point. And if we only took time while our loved ones were alive to show our emotions. I’ll check out that Ted Talk-thanks for the recommendation. Have a safe and happy 4th of July weekend.

      1. You will love it…as a side note, he lost both legs and one arm in a freak electrocution accident and survived, so he has a wonderful perspective on life and death. Happy 4th to you as well!

  18. You have moved me beyond tears! We now have a plan thanks to you! We will begin working on our puppies training next week when we arrive in Denver and hope to start working with children’s hospitals and eventually branch out into what you do. Thank you so much! You are a blessing and so is Sam!

  19. Resonated on so many levels (even the Donna Leon novel….love her books!). I wish I could have brought my poodle-boy to the hospital as sis and I watched our mom take her last breath. It sounds so selfish of me to have wanted his comfort while waiting for mom to leave us but it was a traumatic time all the way around. The best I could do was bring up one of my favorite classical music playlists on Spotify. I got my love of classical music from mom so I placed the phone on the pillow by mom’s head as she lay in her unresponsive state. Albinoni and Vivaldi played as her breathing tube was removed. The nurse on duty was a gem. She assured us mom could hear the music and our words to her even though she did not respond. A little over an hour later she was gone. It was just sis and I …our brother couldn’t be bothered to show up. Sis and I held on to each other not able to say anything. Later, I read a saying from Rumi: The language of love is not uttered in words. It seemed so appropriate as we went through that difficult time together.

    1. So sorry you lost your mom but am convinced she knew you were there with her as she transitioned to a new state. the fact that you considered her final moments with some exquisite music speaks volumes and as no doubt comforting for you, your sister and your mom. The Rumi saying is so appropriate.

  20. You expressed your day very well I think. The bowls have a very relaxing sound besides being reverent. I’m still listening to them. Thanks for doing what you and Sam do.

    1. Thank you. That YouTube clip was amazing. It calmed me repeatedly as I drafted and redrafted and redrafted. 😉 I may have to get a DVD with that beautiful calming and respectful sound.

    1. Many thanks for the kind words. It was a tough post and while I’m still not convinced it was well expressed, the feelings are legit. The longer we do this work, the more committed I am to caring about man & woman-kind. Happy Friday.

  21. thank you for the video. I am reading stories about life and death and one of them involved a nurse in a place like the one you visit. She became despondent, and the author calmly walked her to the birthing unit to observe the other end of the life cycle. He said it’s all one… begin, live, end, start over. A spirit is not lost, only the body. And of course the ones who remain missing them. Sam has a loving spirit.

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