Posts Tagged ‘death’

Facing the holidays after losing a loved one

November 20, 2017

Dale painting 2Two short months after my father-in-law Dale passed away our family faced the very difficult challenge of celebrating Christmas in his house – without this patriarch we loved so much. Dale was a man you couldn’t help but love. He was quirky and jolly and quite chatty – for an engineer. He pulled his large and growing family together at family events – with memorable adult Easter egg hunts, Thanksgivings that started with a speech and crazy Christmas celebrations where he put up with the antics of all the grand kids that were encouraged by his wife Hellen. The kids bounced on a mini trampoline, dressed in grandma’s clothes, and slid down the steep carpeted stairs in sleeping bags. Good times!

Then Dale died. Cancer ravaged his body, rendering him unable to swallow. The feeding tube helped for several months, but ultimately failed. There was nothing more to do. With Dale only 73, the family gathered around his hospital bed on a sunny Labor Day and said good bye.

But time marches on. Summer turned to fall. Fall to winter. Christmas was upon us. We faced it with dread. What would Christmas be like without Dale? Everyone grieves differently. Some cry. Some talk. Some turn inward. Leon, married to Dale’s oldest daughter Heidi, harnessed his artistic talents. Lovingly – he painted Dale’s face on an angel. Then used it to top the tree. Okay, it was a bit weird. And creepy. But it was also comforting to know that Dale was looking down on the family that first Christmas without him.

The next year angel Dale stayed away. And before long the house was sold and many of the Dale-centric holiday traditions went away as well. The family was quickly growing with new spouses, significant others, additional children. The Dale Christmas years were just a happy memory for all of us who had the privilege to participate in them.

With all the joyous rituals, decorations and memories that surround the winter holidays, the death of a loved one can cause stress and turmoil for those who are grieving.

Having worked with Providence Hospice of Seattle for the past dozen years, I’ve written several stories about grief and the holidays. Here’s some advice from Rex Allen, manager of Providence Hospice grief support services:

Those who are grieving shouldn’t be afraid to take the time and space needed to work through that grief.

“Going back to our roots is really important and everything on the table is up to be reconsidered,” Allen says. “What may have made sense at one point may not make sense today. The closer you are to when the death occurred, the more challenging it will be.”

It’s okay to turn down invitations to holiday events if you’re not feeling up to it. “Take out your calendar and just write `NO’ on it. When someone says, `come do this,’ check your calendar, say your calendar says `No.’ It takes a lot of courage to say `this is how I’m going to do it right now because this is what I can do.'”

The death of a loved one brings change, and change is often hard to deal with. But in reality, we are constantly changing. Instead of fearing this change, embrace it and grow from it. “The wonderful thing about the holidays – all the traditions are about remembering and renewing. They give us another chance to step back at the end of the year and say, `here is where I have grown, here is what I’m having trouble with, and I can determine what that means for me in the future,” Allen says.

While it’s important to be in the moment and reflect on the past, Allen tells grieving families to look forward as well. “Eventually as we move through this season and the days get warmer and the leaves change and come back, what we feel today will have shifted in ways that hopefully we have had the opportunity to learn and that is one of the most magnificent things about grief – it’s a teacher if we open ourselves to it,” he says.

Happy Holidays. Enjoy your traditions. Make memories.

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Midwives for the dying: How hospice can help

March 10, 2015

hospice photoLast week a lovely young woman quietly entered my father’s room at the nursing home and asked if he was ready for his massage. He smiled up at her from his bed and said, “sure.” Then added, “if it doesn’t cost too much.”

This massage – and any others that he’ll get each week – are free to him. A free massage? How does that work? In this case, the massage is paid for by Medicare as part of the hospice services my father now receives as he approaches the end of his life. It’s one of the many benefits offered by hospice, an amazing service that I believe everyone should take advantage of as they  prepare to leave this earth.

I’m a hospice believer. I have been ever since I started doing PR for Providence Hospice of Seattle more than a decade ago and I’ve seen the amazing benefits people at the end of their lives get from hospice. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization defines hospice this way: “Considered the model for quality compassionate care for people facing a life-limiting illness, hospice provides expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support expressly tailored to the patient’s needs and wishes. Support is provided to the patient’s loved ones as well. Hospice focuses on caring, not curing. In most cases, care is provided in the patient’s home but may also be provided in freestanding hospice centers, hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities. Hospice services are available to patients with any terminal illness or of any age, religion, or race.”

In my work and as someone who has seen family members cared for by hospice, I have witnessed amazing compassion, caring and healing at a very difficult time in people’s lives. I’ve seen an estranged daughter reunited with her father. I’ve seen veterans honored in one last ceremony to mark their military service to this country. I’ve seen a young cancer patient comforted by a hospice therapy dog.

And I’ve seen the benefits of hospice in my own family. When my uncle was dying of congestive heart failure several years ago, he got to the point where the doctors recommended hospice care for him. Some family members objected, believing that this would mean he was “giving up” and wouldn’t get the care needed to continue to live. He was sent from the hospital to a hospice facility, where he was expected to die within a week. But, because of the amazing care he received there, he actually recovered! He got well enough to leave. While on hospice he received intensive nursing care, which allowed him to better manage his illness to a point where he was even able to travel to his winter home in Arizona. At that point he was literally kicked off of hospice care, as his condition improved so much that he no longer had a life expectancy of six months or less (needed to qualify for hospice care). We were told at the time that he’d likely be back. And sure enough, he was back eventually. He did die while on hospice care, back at the hospice facility – 18 months after he first received hospice services. I truly believe that the hospice care he received prolonged his life. And with that he got to spend more time with loved ones, travelled, and even saw a reconciliation between family members who before that didn’t get along.

My father started receiving hospice care two weeks ago. He doesn’t have any diseases. But at age 96 he’s what I call “terminally old.” He finally qualified for hospice care when he got pneumonia. I wondered how hospice could help since he’s already in a nursing home and has nurses buzzing around him 24/7. I was assured hospice would add additional services. And sure enough, he sees the hospice nurse at least once a week, the hospice social worker at least every two weeks, the hospice chaplain, a hospice volunteer, and the sweet massage therapist. Medicare pays for hospice care, so it doesn’t cost him (or anyone else who receives hospice care) a dime. The hospice team also is there for family members – to answer questions, offer advice, and to simply listen. They are as concerned with the family’s health as they are with the patient’s health, since we all know that dying isn’t easy for anyone.

But the hospice workers help us through it. After my uncle died, I asked one of the hospice nurses how she could do this very taxing job. She responded simply, that she felt like a midwife. Instead of helping usher a baby into this new world, she helps usher the dying into their new world – whatever that is. What a great statement. It will stick with me forever.

Funeral for a friend

November 17, 2014

This is a blog post I wish I didn’t have to write. But since writing is therapy, I have to do it.

A friend who I have known since high school died last Monday. We weren’t really close as teens but we went to the same synagogue and spent time together at youth group and summer camp. We got to know each other a bit better in college with LOTS of mutual friends. Then we didn’t connect again until we served on a non-profit board together about 20 years ago. He was a CPA and served as treasurer for many years. I needed an accountant after starting my business in 2000 and my husband and I chose him. It turned into an excellent professional relationship peppered with many mutual friends and interests from our past.

Actually it was the perfect professional relationship. We didn’t socialize together. But, like the middle of a Venn diagram, we had many friends and interests in common.

Jeff Berkman bike photoMy friend, who was a month older than me but a year ahead in school because of how the schools determined when one would start public school, was diagnosed with leukemia five years ago. It hit close to home because it was within weeks of when my niece was diagnosed with lymphoma. He went through chemo and ultimately got a bone marrow transplant donated from his brother and administered by The Hutch.  Like my niece, he had a great outcome! He went into remission and celebrated his new life for nearly the next five years by spending lots of time with his wife and three kids, traveling regularly with his family and parents and brother to Lake Chelan and Hawaii, and cutting back his work hours. He raised bees and chickens, rowed and biked. From what I could see, he chose to live life to its absolute fullest.

Then last month we heard that his leukemia had returned – nearly five years after his first diagnosis. Dang it all! He went through major chemo. The chemo zapped the leukemia. But it also zapped him. He died of complications from chemo and a hellacious couple of weeks.

We went to the funeral on Friday. The synagogue where he had attended religious school, where he was married, where his brother and parents were married as well, served as the venue for the service. A crowd of at least 400 showed up. His friends. His parents’ friends. His kids’ friends. Clients. Neighbors. Many others who he had touched over the years.Jeff Berkman photo

As I listened to the rabbi’s eulogy, I had to wonder – as everyone else in the room was wondering – why? We always wonder that when someone dies “before his or her time.” There is no right answer. We all have to try to figure it out on our own.

I have to believe that there is a why. That’s how I look at things. So, here’s my simple, by-no-means original take-away. The ONLY lesson I can take from this is that we need to celebrate, celebrate, celebrate all the good  times and not sweat the small stuff – none of it! That’s hard to do as we’re stuck in traffic, worried about our kids, frustrated by so-called “first world problems.” This isn’t a major revelation or anything like that, just a bit of something that perhaps will help us learn from this. Hug your kids. Kiss your spouse or significant other. Tell your parents you love them. Every time the sun comes out, take a few minutes away from the screen to go out and enjoy it. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Enjoy today. Every day.


Bendichas Manos

a blog about living, cooking and caring in the Ladino tradition

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