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! ❤︎