Category Archives: grief

Last Call

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Last Call

I encountered a situation yesterday that was a first in my ten years as a hospice volunteer. A couple of days ago the Volunteer Coordinator sent out an email asking for a volunteer. She gave a summary of the case including the town, first name of the patient and a description of the requested visit. The patient was in my town so I responded immediately that I would like to help this family. The next day a secure email was sent to me with the patient name, address and contact information.

Last night I called the patient’s wife to schedule the visit. A woman answered the phone and I asked if it was Helen, my contact. “No”, the shaky voice replied. I explained the reason for my call and a slight sense of dread was building. “No need to visit, he died about an hour ago. He’s still on the floor waiting for the funeral director to get him.” I could hear the tears in the voice on the other end of the phone and then it clicked, I know this person.

“Jan, is that you?” I asked, sure that I knew the person on the other end of the line. “Yes” she replied. I gave my full name, said how sorry I was and asked if there was anything I could do in that moment. There wasn’t anything to do, except to express my deepest condolences which is what I did. She thanked me for the call and we said good-bye.

I could picture my acquaintance on the phone. Tears, that keep coming when you think you’re all cried out. I could feel her concern for her newly widowed mother. I wondered if she ate dinner or if she would sleep over her parents home to ease the adjustment of that awful first night. I imagined a fitful night with not much sleep, except for an hour or so when the emotional exhaustion just overwhelms your body and forces you to rest despite your mind’s best efforts to keep you up. I could sense the headache, the nasal congestion and the scratchy throat, remnants of many tears shed. I felt her grief and I took a little piece with me. I still have it.

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I Miss the You I Never Knew

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I Miss the You I Never Knew

I’m just leaving it here because I have been carrying it all day and it is so damn heavy.

I knew you from your posts

but now you’re just a ghost

It doesn’t feel right to mourn you

but I do

I miss the you I never knew

 

This was written today on the second anniversary of my half brother’s death. He was 25 and he committed suicide. The family dynamics are beyond dysfunctional….I wrote about it in….https://wasthatmyoutloudvoice.com/2015/08/16/its-complicated/

An interesting side note…I came downstairs at 5am because my heart was grieving and my mind was racing from a nightmare. When I got downstairs I noticed one of the electric candles was on in the living room on top of the mantle. I did not turn it on, neither did my husband or my kids. The switch is on the under side of the candle and requires intent to put it on….and there it was flickering away. Shine on little brother.

 

Missing My Friend

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Missing My Friend

Today is my friend’s 47th birthday….only problem is she died nearly two years ago so the celebration will be “low-key”. Grab a chair, your coffee and some tissues and I’ll tell you about her.

I became friends with Christine when our boys were in preschool. I had heard about her from a friend who lived down the street from her. I even stopped by her house once or twice when I was visiting our mutual friend. This woman held an open house every day. If you or your kids were around you were welcome to visit, stay for dinner. She had an entire family move in once for a few months as they prepared to move back to Europe.

Christine was smart, kind and generous. I know everyone says this about their friends but I’m telling you she took it to a whole other level. She was also an M.D. so validation on the smart comment. I bet she was the best doctor ever. I can imagine her listening to her patients with love and humor and thinking of them well past the visit. She was definitely the kind that would check in on her flock.

Sadly, by the time we got close her days of practicing medicine were in the rear view mirror. Though she would still yell at you and make sure you got treatment if she thought you needed it. She could be stubborn and persistent. One time I mentioned that the back of my right knee felt swollen. I was immediately told to drop my pants so she could exam me. You didn’t say no to Christine. Since I had a history of pregnancy related blood clots she sent me straight to ER and placed some calls to make sure I would get the A team regardless of which doctors were actually on call that day. Truth be told she would have done that for anyone that crossed her path.

She collected people in the manner that others collect bells, stamps or whatever the hell people collect……except no one was left on the shelf, ever. If there was a party everyone was invited, EVERYONE within a 50 mile radius. Her parties were big, loud, fun and filled with her people.

She treated everyone with kindness and generosity. She could make friends anywhere – playground, waiting room, hospital, gas station….anywhere. Once you were her friend you were in the inner circle which was rather large. The only flaw I can find beyond the persistent stubborn nature was she liked to hear gossip. Whenever we spoke on the phone one of the first things out of her month was “what’s the latest gossip?” This was in no way to be mean she didn’t have an ounce of mean in her she was just inquisitive by nature and probably wanted a change of scenery from her daily grind of personal medical issues.

Soon after she gave birth to her son, she found out she had a rare cancer. Surgery was performed and the cancer was determined to be severe and rare. By the time we became close she had been through years of chemo, radiation and every other aggressive treatment known to mankind to treat her. She was a fighter. Unfortunately, the aggressive treatments permanently harmed her heart. To the point where she had some extra parts inserted inside her chest to keep things pumping. Even that didn’t go smooth as one of the “parts” was determined to be defective and was known to fray in which case she would have about half an hour to get to the hospital if she had any hope of survival. She was 35 when that happened.

Can you imagine? Here you are a beloved MD with a thriving private practice…….you have a young daughter and a new husband, with whom you have an infant son and BAM your world implodes. To make matters worse her father was diagnosed with a different but equally aggressive cancer within a week of Christine. WTF universe?

So when our boys were in the same small preschool class she had been dealing with this medical shit storm for 5 years. She had a damn good handle on it but at this point her father was dying. I never met the man but my God in the descriptions he sounds like Santa Claus, Jimmy Buffet and your favorite comedian wrapped up into one fun loving kind soul. The first day I met Christine’s mom was the day he died…..I hugged mother and daughter with everything I had.

A few days later there was a memorial in Christine’s house celebrating her father’s life…..hundreds of people were there. Two weeks after that the annual Christmas Party took place on schedule because these people knew the value of living in the moment and celebrating life…..right here, right now…..do not postpone joy.

I remember one day we joined our boys on a preschool field trip and she told me some of the details of her medical situation. She flat out told me “I probably won’t make it past his 10th birthday”. Of course I didn’t want to believe her but I trusted her judgement….she was after all a doctor and a level headed woman. That conversation is burned in my brain. Sadly her predication was pretty accurate.

When the boys were in 1st grade the world started to crumble yet again. I think it was the spring when she called and told me she had cancer again. Different area same shitty disease. She cried on the phone I just said how sorry I was that she was going through this again. Not sure of what kind of a cheer leader I was but she knew I was available to do whatever she needed.

At one point I went to visit her in NYC at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I just wanted to let her know I was there for her with whatever she needed. As I was leaving she asked me if she was going to be OK…..I put on the best game face I had and without hesitation I said “absolutely” with a certainty that I didn’t actually have but wanted so bad.

The last two years of her life were incredibly difficult and fraught with a series of medical issues that would have taken a lesser person down in an instant. She went through broken bones, blood clots, countless chemo and radiation treatments. All the while she kept her kids on track. She was planning her daughter’s college prep sending her to Ivy League summer programs when she was a Sophomore in High School. By the way that girl was Valedictorian at her High School Graduation. She is a kindhearted genius like her mom and if anyone has a shot a curing cancer my money is on her.

She made sure her son had a close circle of friends and family at all times. We are still around loving him like he is an adopted son….and his father is doing a great job in the parenting department. In her last years, she planned and attended multiple trips to Disney, Hershey Park, Atlantis……she made as many happy memories as she could while she was here…..because she knew she only had a short time to squeeze in a lifetime of love and laughter.

So my dear Christine I wish you a happy birthday in heaven where surely you have collected more friends and are nurturing the other angels around you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their Stories…Tales of a Hospice Volunteer

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Their Stories…Tales of a Hospice Volunteer

I have heard so many stories from the people that I have met as a hospice volunteer. I meet others through a small business that I run where I fill in the gaps for people when they need help. I have met some interesting people along the way. People always have a personal reason for becoming a hospice volunteer. It isn’t the PTA, you don’t do it for your kids.

I became interested in hospice in my late 20s. My aunt was dying of metastatic breast cancer and she appointed me as executrix of her estate. It was an incredible experience because my aunt was a highly spiritual and deeply religious woman. She was young, not even 60 and she met death face on with a grace and dignity that eludes me on a daily basis. We had many open discussions during her final year and it made me wonder what it was like to know you were dying within days, weeks or months? I started to worry that the dying person may not have anyone they felt they could talk to….sometimes the people closest to us are the hardest ones to talk to when life is near the end.

Some people are so close to the dying person that it is too emotionally charged for them to have a coherent conversation. Then again, some can’t communicate when things are great. Toss in a terminal illness and some just go mute or into complete denial. The surviving family and friends generally have people to talk to but the dying person….who do they have? I decided that I wanted to be that person.

So finally 10 years after the seed was planted I decided to become a hospice volunteer through a local hospital. My kids were still young but the preschool hours and some kind friends provided enough kid free time for me to attend the Medicare required training. I had been a stay at home mom for 5 years at this point and it was great to check off a personal goal that was independent of my family.

The hospital I volunteer for has a training coordinator we will call her Kay. When a hospice volunteer is requested, Kay sends out an email to a group of hospice volunteers telling us a little bit about the situation and what day/time a volunteer is needed. Then a volunteer will ‘reply all’ that they can do it and Kay sends a secure email to that individual. The volunteer then has the information to contact the family and the visit is scheduled. Sadly we always have to check in the day of the visit to make sure the patient hasn’t passed, it happens.

A couple of years ago I received such a call from the wife of a man that I was supposed to stay with the next day. Sadly her husband had passed a few hours before she called me. I find it remarkable that she would have the presence of mind to even think of me but she did. We chatted for a few minutes and she mentioned that she lied to her daughter and told her that a friend was staying with her that night because she did not want to inconvenience her. I never met that woman in person but I think of her often.

That’s how it is with hospice work. You meet people at this most intense time in their life. Sometimes it is scary and awkward and uncomfortable and other times it is filled with grace, dignity and love. You never know what you are walking into when you arrive at someone’s home. Sometimes the family is close and open and other times you can feel tension in the air from countless family fights and relatives being forced in a room with someone they haven’t spoken to in decades. I go in knowing that these people have an entire lifetime of memories, emotions and conflicts and I am not there to try to sort that out. I am there for two reasons: to be there for the patient in whatever capacity they need and to give the caregiver a break.

They, the patients, always leave me behind at some point. Sometimes they hang on well past the point that anyone would have thought they could. Other times they go suddenly….even though they were on hospice, you are shocked….they were a fighter and you thought you had more time. Most of the time though I know when our last visit has occurred. More times than not, I will get an extra squeeze of their hand, a knowing look and an extra and most sincere thank you. And I leave knowing I will not see them again.

Though they are gone, they are not forgotten. Many tell me their stories some are funny, others are heart breaking and I hold onto those stories and take them with me. That is our gift to each other.

It’s Complicated

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It’s Complicated

So today is a shitty day. It is actually the anniversary of a very shitty, horribly tragic, mind numbing day. One year ago my half brother hung himself, he was 25. I feel I must utter the odd disclaimer: we did not grow up together and I was born more than 20 years before him. We were not close in the traditional sibling way. We didn’t share Christmas or birthdays, we did not jockey for the best passenger seats in the family car or get jealous over the attention one got from mom. I barely knew him but I liked him. Circumstances led us to be primarily facebook friends and let me tell you the kid was funny as hell on facebook. I used to love his posts. He was a musician, a bartender, no doubt a player – the ladies loved him. He was adorable. And he killed himself, I’m still angry about it.

Before you get on my case for being angry let me just stop you and say, it’s a process. Perhaps I should be further along than anger but I’m not so let me be. I don’t have the ocean of sorrow, the missing expected and vastly hallow memories, sadness for new memories that won’t happen, it wasn’t that kind of relationship. What I do have is my own bizarre experience of how it all went down and I am curious if others have been in this particular and peculiar spot. I’m going to try and keep it as brief as possible but it is um….complicated.

So my parents got divorced when my twin brother and I were two years old. Drama. Physical fights, multiple moves, betrayal, screaming, drunks and chaos from my earliest memory. My father saw us on a scheduled and somewhat regular basis until about age 8. He got remarried when we were young, maybe 5 years old?

His second wife, we’ll call her Jenny was so pretty and kind. I remember her long thick, straight hair – brown with some reddish blonde highlights. She used fat hot curlers to achieve her look. She drank Pepsi and had a little dog named Scruffy and she had a birthday party for him. She made me feel like a super model before that was even a thing. She was a teacher and she knew how to work kids, we loved her. Of course we couldn’t tell our mother that.  She was a rage filled, jealous alcoholic. I learned to read her from a young age and I knew that I could not act as if I liked my father or Jenny around her.

When my brother and I were 8 years old my mother and father had a custody battle and mom won. That’s how it was in the 70’s kids went with mom most of the time regardless of how F’ed up she was….we soon moved from New Jersey to Florida with my mother’s then boyfriend.  Now that span of time is a whole other story that I don’t have time for right now but my god the insanity was at expert level.

We were in Florida about one year before that situation imploded in a cops taking mom away in cuffs kind of way…..We wound up back in New Jersey. My brother and I were so excited to see our father again we went to his house at the shore as soon as we could. A different man showed up. I mean the guy looked like my dad but he didn’t act like him. He opened the door, did not invite us inside and talked to us on the stoop. It was obvious even to a 9 year old that he didn’t want us inside the house. Well I determined at that moment that he would not get the better of me and an internal emotional wall was erected to protect myself. My brother chose the slam his head repeatedly against the wall approach. The necessity of either approach sucked.

So for the next 20 years or so my relationship with my father consisted of a Christmas card and a birthday card each with $50 and an obligatory brief thank you from me for each. There were a few skirmishes on the phone when my mom would prompt me to ask him for money for necessities. When I was 15 I went to rehab (I know what a shock) and he came in to sign insurance papers, didn’t bother to visit. My mother made sure to tell me that. At 21 I wrote him a letter as an adult. I acknowledged that I heard one side my whole life and invited him into my life. I got no response. No. Response.

In my late twenties relatives started to die, the old ones mostly. I would see my father and his family (which included 5 kids with Jenny) at funerals and weddings and other large family events. Eventually it became less weird to see them and we started making small talk. My siblings from my father’s second family didn’t even know I existed before then, that must have been an interesting family meeting. In 1997 my aunt became terminally ill with cancer and that increased the sightings. In early 2000 my twin brother and I were there on a random Friday night for pizza. Three days later Jenny died in a car accident leaving 5 kids behind. Ben, the youngest was just 11 years old.

My twin brother and I tried to be there for them. On the day of the accident we rushed to the hospital to meet our father. His oldest daughter from his second marriage was in the car with Jenny and required surgery. A friend of my father’s was with him and when he was introduced he commented that he had never known about me. I was 32, that kind of crap happened all the time but clearly there were other things to think about so I swallowed it down. Made sure the doctors knew that my sister needed to be able to attend her mother’s funeral. I could tell my father needed to communicate that but he wasn’t capable at the time so I said it out loud on his behalf.

My twin and I went to the wake, the funeral, the lunch all the sad events. At one point we were at the wake surrounded by family pictures of our father, Jenny and their five kids and we weren’t in a single photo. We both felt so many mixed emotions in that room that after an hour or so we needed to leave. I felt like I was choking. I mean I wasn’t but I was dry drowning on my own anguish. Jenny was a teacher for 30 years, she had 5 kids and was active in her church there were probably 1,000 mourners. Highway lights were blocked off for her funeral procession it was intense and horrible in all the ways you imagine it would be.

Fast forward 14 years and Ben kills himself. Once again I have a back stage pass to someone’s tragedy. I have expected rights to rituals based on my family label with just a fraction of the closeness the tasks should require. I heard the news from my twin who had stayed much closer with dad’s second family. He lived in the same town for several years and had more things in common like, sailing, beer and music. I’m a stay at home mom who lives far from the beach oh and I don’t drink alcohol, practically another dimension.

As fate would have it I had plans to go to the same shore town that day to visit a friend. So I took my kids to visit with my friend and went to my sister’s house where I had never been before. My father and his girlfriend were there along with my siblings (minus the one I grew up with who was 12 hours away) and Jenny’s best friend who always gives me and my twin death stare daggers when we are in the same room. My sisters were writing the obituary. It was awful and I was useless, awkward and in the way most likely but I felt like I should be there. I didn’t want to make a statement by not being there in my mind that was worse.

The wake was awful as you would expect. People waited for hours to pay their respects. I waited outside for a good amount of time before my twin got me and shuffled me inside. He wanted to get me to wait on the receiving line which just would have been too weird. I felt the building sway with the grief in that room it was surreal and yet here we were again. Another room filled beyond capacity with broken souls aching in their grief filled with pictures of a happy family that I was not really a part of….. I just waited it out feeling like some kind of fraud. I was there for my father and twin brother but the others probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t there. I say that without malice it’s just a reflective thought.

The next day was the funeral. I started the day with a last stop at the funeral home where the “family” was saying their last good byes. Those poor kids having to bury another pivotal family member far too soon. My heart broke for each of them and my father. I can’t imagine having to bury my son. It should not happen to anyone. Eventually we cleared out and went to the church for a Catholic service. I took my own car and planned on ducking in the back. My twin was a pall bearer and I just wanted to blend in somewhere.

That didn’t happen. My father saw me outside the church and motioned for me to come over. He had his longtime girlfriend on his left and me on his right. He held my hand and walked me down the aisle to the coffin where a fabric was draped on top he then led us to the front pew. I sat next to his girlfriend and my twin for the service and was motioned to sign a book at some point, it’s a blur. So many emotions swirling through my head it was like an out of body experience.

After the service we went to the cemetery. Once again there was a several miles long procession with a police escort and a salute from the fire department (he was a volunteer), highway lights blocked to other traffic. Eerily similar to his mother’s funeral procession. It was hot and the grief was palpable.  It was as prevalent as the steam coming off the asphalt of the cemetery parking lot. The sobs came in waves, a sea of mourners. They buried him next to his mother.