It was a week before Christmas, a special birthday celebration and instead of just a few candles we offered 1000 butterlamps. These were lit before the start of the ceremony which concluded with the traditional Happy Birthday song for Rinpoche.
After our shared lunch I walked slowly up the stairs to the Temple. From the bottom of the stairs in the distance I saw a young woman with her two children aged 6 and 8. I greeted her on arrival and she asked if she could light some butter lamps. She looked close to tears, and I asked her, “What’s the matter?”
“I need some help, my son died last week and I need some kind of spiritual help that’s why I came here. Is there a Lama here? I need to talk to someone.” Then the floodgate of tears was unleashed. I put my arm around her and let her cry. Her two young children looked worried. I had some home baking upstairs and asked them to bring it down for a cup of tea.
When we were alone she shared that her 23 year old son had committed suicide. His siblings were told their brother had died. They were too young to understand and she didn’t want to burden them with it. As the children came bounding down the stairs I offered them something to eat and suggested they play outside on the grass where they could still see us whilst I talked with mum. They appeared to be relieved to have another adult to talk to their mum.
Reincarnation was one of the topics of conversation in the first room this morning. Our patient was a believer and had told his wife that she would come back as a dog. Unfortunately one of their daughters had died only a few years ago. It is always difficult for parents to deal with, as it goes against nature’s order to have a child die before a parent. One of the tragedies in life that elderly people would like to avoid if at all possible. Their daughter had died but had left her traces everywhere.
She had always loved butterflies, and had grown lots of swan plants in order to provide food for her favourite Monarch butterflies. She had a keen eye for their caterpillars and could see them from a distance, their yellow, black and white lines indicating their presence. She especially loved the pupae/cocoons that would form as the caterpillars went through the biggest changes in their lives, metamorphosis. Coming out the other side of the process transformed, with a new outlook on life and the ability to fly. Looking so different in colour scheme and features. She had always loved to have butterflies around. In some cultures it is believed that butterflies are visiting dead friends and family members who have come to see you from the other side of the grave. This is a comforting thing to have your ancestors come to see how you are.
Our patient had been steadily deteriorating over the past week, and he and the family had derived some comfort in being visited by Monarch butterflies. It was thought that their late daughter/sister was visiting their father as he entered his final cocoon state, just before dying. I told them that when people die in our hospice we would affix a butterfly to the door.
I have often drawn cocoons on our patient list board to indicate that people are undergoing the final transformation in their life, the dying process. One in which everything starts to wind down, the heart, lungs and other organ functions change. A person becomes sleepier, and less clear in their mind, Nature or a higher power’s way of protecting the dying person from the full experience of dying.
“Please keep on talking to him, he can hear you, but might not be able to respond to you.” Family members were considering leaving for home to come back again soon, but I advised that he could die at anytime, and that traveling under lockdown restrictions was not as easy as usual. Probably better to hang around and support each other for a few more days.
She was one of our community patients, a lady in her early forties who had been deteriorating over the past week. We were able to control her physical symptoms well but there was a deep underlying sadness deep inside. She was able to accept that she was dying, that she would be leaving behind her 18 year old daughter and her husband. That was not the cause of her upset, our counsellor went to see her at home to see if she could find out what was going on.
What was causing our patient so much anguish? She was well supported by her husband and daughter, and other family members were helping too but as our patient became less conscious her agitation and distress worsened. Was it an end of life delirium or was there something more going on? Her husband said that she was still looking for Mary.
Mary? Who is Mary?
But your daughter is not called Mary.
Our older daughter.
Oh we didn’t know you had another daughter.
She was stillborn when we had her 20 years ago. We were young and didn’t have enough money to properly bury her. We only had a few hours with her before they took her away. We never found out where she was buried. We looked for the first two years but our English wasn’t as good back then, we had just moved over from the Islands. We never found her, but we’ve always missed her. Especially my wife.
There was a mystery to be solved, I had to find out where baby Mary was buried, with only her full name and date of death. I had no idea how to start the search, so I asked around my colleagues. Thanks to everyone who suggested that I contact the local council. A quick search of their website found a section where you can search for burial locations online yourself. This did not yield any results, but led me to another section of the website that allowed me to send a query email.
A few days later a real human answered, and suggested that I email someone else. Two days later I was sent a reply with a picture of a map of the cemetery with a highlighted area within which the baby had been buried. I printed out the map and our counsellor rushed out to deliver the information package to the couple. Time was of the essence as our patient was deteriorating rapidly and was in danger of losing consciousness and clarity.
Two days later our patient died peacefully at home with her gathered family, her distress had settled down once she was told that Mary had been found. The bereaved husband’s were red and swollen, but he smiled when he told us that his wife knew where to find their long-lost baby and could pick her up on their way to heaven.
It was my mother’s birthday. It was a cold, bleak winter’s day. I had put on a nice warm woolen skirt that my friend had given me which belonged to her mother. It was a bit big on the waist but was okay. I wore it to work. After school I rushed to buy some flowers to take to the cemetery before it closed.
When I arrived I was the only person there, and I quickly arranged the flowers on my parents’ grave. I stood back to admire the flowers and my thoughts turned toward my precious mother. It was starting to get dark, I felt sad as I walked back to my car. I remembered happier times on my mother’s birthday.
Suddenly I felt very cold, I thought to myself the temperature had plummeted. Then I looked down and saw that actually it was my skirt that had fallen down and I was standing in the cemetery in just my stockings with my skirt on the ground.
I started to laugh and laugh and laugh. Then I suddenly realised if anyone saw me in my stockings laughing so loud in the cemetery they would think I was having an ‘episode’ so I quickly put my skirt on and walked slowly to my car.
Then I noticed the security cameras. I raised my handbag to my face to save myself some embarrassment and walked faster to the car. I smiled to myself as I drove home as I remembered what my mother had said to me when I was young ….”Always wear a petticoat.”
I arrived around the same time as the Eat My Lunch delivery arrived. This was a local social enterprise which had been set up and the concept was that if you bought a lunch, the company would provide a lunch to a student in need. The company had delivered some school lunches to be distributed to the students. From one of the other network attendees I learnt that the school also provided breakfast for the kids as well as lunch. The lady said that she helped with the breakfast serving at least once a week. She admitted to initially being against the idea, that she had believed that children’s nutrition was supposed to be under the remit of their parents. Over time she came to the realisation that due to personal circumstances this was not always possible, and that providing children with one or two meals a day really enhanced their health, and their learning ability. Since then she happily reported to duty each week, and sometimes even filled in shifts for other people.
A family had come back recently from the Islands, the husband was unwell with metastatic cancer. The teacher asked if the patient was under hospice. I thought that service was only for Palagi – The foreigner – the white people. Despite us having been the hospice for the local area for the past 35+ years local people still did not know that we were available to help our local community members regardless of who they are. A gap that we still haven’t been able to bridge despite many years of trying to connect. What we had done over the past three decades just wasn’t working. We need to try something different. The same old, same old just doesn’t cut it any more. What else can we do to make the connection? That we are here for people just like you. We have been trying to recruit to reflect our local demographic. For our staff to look like our community, and we are hiring for inclusion to encourage diversity of thought at all levels of our organisation. People like us look after people like you, we are one and the same.
The family had lost their father and husband due to a brutal act of violence at the local train station. His life was cruelly stolen from them, and the grief was too much for them to handle. They were lost, set adrift in a cruel sea of grief, with no land in sight, no hope of rescue. Every week they would visit the site of his death, the mother and the children, would weep and could not move on with their lives. This important local community hub held onto their agony with an iron grip. A local amenity that could not be avoided, became not just a place to catch a bus or a train, but a deva-station. Transporting them to a painful past, a tormented present and an uncertain future.
It had been one week since her husband passed away when she went to the cemetery to visit him. She wanted to go earlier but she had been too unwell. She was tired from the effort of walking and was grateful she could rest on the seat of her walker. She made her way slowly to her husband’s grave. In the distance, she could hear the sound of someone sobbing.
She sat looking at the headstone and replayed in her mind memories of when they were together. It was not her first experience of death, having lost her two year old daughter many years ago.
She recalled many weeks spent at the cemetery mourning her loss. But then one night she had a dream of angels in a line descending from the sky, each one bearing a candle in their hand. Then she saw her daughter but her candle was not alight. She rushed towards her daughter when she heard a voice telling her that it was her tears that kept her daughter’s candle from burning.
I was working on the liaison psychiatry team in my final year of medical school. I went to meet a patient that had self-referred, which was unusual. Psych liaison provides psychiatric input for patients who also have medical issues that have brought them into hospital. I went with the nurse specialist to see the patient, an Englishman in his mid-thirties.
Work had brought him and his Latin American wife across the world. He was a nature documentary maker and had been based in the lower South Island filming the local wildlife. Just before Christmas he became unwell with a severe nosebleed, which required hospital intervention. Simple blood tests revealed grossly abnormal results. Acute Myelocytic Leukaemia (AM bloody helL) was the shocking diagnosis which destroyed their plans for Christmas and life in general. An urgent admission was arranged to our hospital’s Haematology department, which served the entire region. Harsh chemotherapy needed to be started otherwise our patient would’ve only had days left to live.
I opened the curtains this morning and there was a little fly. These have become ubiquitous in the past weeks as we have entered New Zealand’s summer. This fly was doing it’s thing near my bedroom windows and despite still being bleary eyed I tried to catch it with my bare hands. Using my whole hand did not work, the fly was able to weave it’s way between my fingers. After a few flailed attempts, I decided to change my strategy. I would try and catch it between the index finger and thumb of my preferred right hand. I went to grab it, and made contact. The fly was stunned and landed on the window sill, I promptly threw it out the window. Little did I know that this series of events would lead to a communications breakthrough later in the morning.
There was a tension in the room as we walked in. The patient was having suctioning done, but from the sounds of her breathing the fluid that needed to be cleared was deep in her main airways. As people near the end of their lives they are less able to cough, and so a tiny amount of fluid can pool, and these can result in a rattley sounds produced on breathing out. Just like when you are drinking something through a straw, at the end of a drink, a tiny bit of fluid can make a lot noise. The same occurs at the end of a life, a bit of fluid vibrating in a deep airway can be noisy, it probably doesn’t bother the patient so much but can be a source of distress to their family members, and even clinical staff.
The adult children, all of whom were parents themselves, were attentive but all looked scared with deep concern etched on their faces. Their beloved mother had been well up until only three weeks ago. Then a large brain bleed had come out of nowhere, rendering mother unconscious. Off to hospital, with many invasive procedures completed but no significant improvement obtained. The doctors and nurses had tried everything they could, but the patient remained unresponsive.
The family were told that their mother/grandmother was dying, but it took a while to sink in. It is usually hard enough to visit sick loved ones in the hospital, let alone during strict Covid-19 lockdown conditions. A very distressing time for the patient and her family. Their mother who had brought them up well, who was the beloved grandmother to their collected 7 children, was not going to be alive much longer. They hated to see her in such extreme distress, and were trying to help, but really did not know what to do.
Communication was crucial but to begin with the emotional temperature in the room was icy cold. An icebreaker was required as it was difficult to establish any rapport with the patient’s children. The patient herself had not been able to speak or respond for some weeks. Even using our mutual second-language, Mandarin Chinese, I had trouble connecting with the distressed family.
Something must have noticed and sent along a little helper, through the window. A fly was flitting around the patient and we tried to swot it away, but it was persistently dodging all attempts. I readied my special index finger and thumb technique that had served me well this morning, I was primed and ready to strike when the air in the room was disturbed by a whooshing sound.
In healthcare it is important to set clear boundaries in order to care for yourself and your patients in a sustainable fashion. In the practice of palliative care, boundary setting is even more important, as the therapeutic relationship can be very intense and intimate at times. We have to keep in mind that this relationship will likely end soon, with the death of our patient. It can be a difficult balancing act; using your humanity to make important connections with another human being; while at the same time keeping professional distance to protect the both of you.
That being said, it is inevitable that there will be some cases which will hit you harder than others. When a deeper connection has been made, you will feel the loss and grief much more strongly. Informal reflection with your team members and professional supervision have an important role to play in keeping us palliative care providers safe to continue doing the important job that we have to do. We need to remind ourselves that this is a job that not everyone in healthcare can handle. That those of us who chose to work in palliative care, owe it to ourselves and our patients to look after ourselves. We are a precious resource and if we do not take care of ourselves, we will deny our patients and their families the difference that we can make in their lives, and deaths.
After almost ten years of working exclusively in full-time palliative care practice I would like to share a case that reminded me of just how human I am, and how much value I obtain from professional supervision and from sharing with my team members.
Grief and loss is something we will all face at different times throughout our lives. Whether it is the death of our pets, our friends, our children, siblings or parents; the experience and expression of grief in response to these losses can be a very personal and individual thing. Grief can also arise in anticipation of loss. For those living with life-limiting illness, living with the loss of social role and professional identity can be especially challenging.
Thoughts about old, new and future losses can be particularly common during the festive season. For some of us, it may represent an anniversary of the death of a loved one, and bring with it painful memories of loss. Some might be facing their first Christmas ‘alone’, while others may be grappling with the possibility of celebrating their ‘last Christmas’.
While living with grief and loss is a personal experience, we don’t have to endure it on our own. As a community, there are many ways that we can support each other. Join Palliverse and Palliative Care Australia CEO Liz Callaghan (@PCACEO) to reflect on 2016 and talk about grief and loss.
Carers and people with palliative care needs are especially welcome, as are health professionals, researchers, policymakers and interested community members!