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Archive for the ‘birth’ Category

It’s 2017, so they tell me, though I have been laid up in bed since late December with a nasty virus, and have trouble remembering which day of the week it is.

In a few days it will be 20 years since my sister Carol was diagnosed with the virulent cancer that would take her life 6 months later, on July 4, 1997. I had just begun a well deserved and much needed sabbatical and was busy making plans for a research trip when my sister called to say that the cancer was back.

“Fuck, Fuck, FUCK,” I said, when she told me.

“Don’t say that,” she said.

“But it’s just not fair! You’ve done so well! Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I said again, the only words that seemed to capture the extent of my anger and grief and shock.

“Don’t say that,” she said. “It just makes it harder for me.”

“OK,” I agreed. “I’ll be on the first train tomorrow to see you.”

And so it began. The 6 month “journey” in cancerland – through endless visits to doctors and hospitals, CT scans and MRIs, biopsies, and surgery. Vomiting and K-basins. Fear. And always pain. And finally death.

So many of the details of those six months are still vivid in my mind and my heart. The endless waiting for results, the parade of PSWs and “sitters.” Dozens upon dozens of phone calls on pay phones, in the days long before cell phones. And countless conversations with Carol about what she wanted and needed. I would have done anything I could have for her. And in the end it was never enough.

Shortly after she died, I began to tell people that I had been transformed by Carol’s death. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew it was true. I was no longer running away from death. Four years later, I would begin what became my 15 year journey as a hospice volunteer. “My sister works through me,” I would tell friends when I first began my volunteer work with dying people and their families. Sometimes I could almost hear her telling me, “Slow down. There’s nothing you have to do. Just listen to their stories.” And I did.

And I still do, all these 20 years later. I also write and talk and speak at conferences and churches and meeting halls. I look for opportunities to share my book about caring for my sister and my elderly parents, in hopes that I can help others who are facing this challenging time in their lives.

When I first began volunteering at hospice, friends would look at me strangely as I would wax eloquent about my volunteering. Some thought it morbid, others that I was courting depression in being with dying people week after week. Few would believe me when I told them my time at hospice was the most hopeful part of my week.

More often now, people ask me what I do at hospice – what it’s like giving care to dying people, and talking with their families. More and more, of course, friends and strangers alike have experienced the death of someone they love. Or they are watching their aging parents coming to terms with their loss of independence and failing health. Perhaps they have received a difficult diagnosis themselves. Now they too want to talk about death and dying.

And so I will continue to write, here and elsewhere, about life and death. I’ll read the latest books on the subject from the library, and watch movies about “d and d.” I’ll continue to give talks wherever I can,  and I’ll look forward to hearing other people’s stories.

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In the past few weeks, I have sat with a number of patients as they were dying. As a hospice volunteer, one of my most important roles is to be with people nearing the end of their lives to ensure that no one dies alone. The experience is humbling, deeply moving, and a poignant reminder of the circle of life. Each time I watch someone take their last breath, I am struck by the mystery of life and death – breath and finally no breath. Ever again.

I don’t know who I would be today if I had not cared for my sister when she was dying. If I had not sat with her as she took her last breath, I doubt I would now have the wisdom and equanimity to sit with dying people today. If I had not cared for my sister, I might still be pretending that I could somehow avoid dying – both myself and the people I love. I might still be racing from meeting to meeting, barely stopping to notice what was happening right in front of me. I might still be steering a wide berth around people who had lost someone close to them, lest I somehow “catch” death myself.

These days, I spend time following the debates in the House of Commons on what is now termed Medical Aid in Dying. Whatever happens in the Senate in the coming days, Bill C-14 will soon be the law of the land. People will be able to request and receive medical aid in dying.

Yet, the fact is that people have been receiving medical aid in dying for centuries. Medications have helped to ease pain and suffering and to reduce the symptoms that are part of the dying process. In that past few decades, hospice palliative care has made enormous strides in easing such suffering. New drugs and treatments, the practice of titrating the dosage so that the patient can live pain-free and alert for as long as possible – all of these methods are form of medical aid in dying. The presence of compassionate and caring staff and volunteers might be termed non-medical aid in dying. We accompany and help people in this final passage in life.

When I sit with a patient who is dying, when I see a family surrounding their beloved parent, I feel that I am part of the mystery and the miracle of life. Like the births I have witnessed and experienced, these deaths too are an integral part of life.

I hope that, whatever form the final legislation takes, we do not lose sight of these fundamental truths.

 

 

 

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A new life

Apologies for my absence from this site after a flurry of posts. But I have a great reason! On May 20th my little grandson Felix was born! A “baby brudder” for my granddaughter and a wonderful addition to our family. Being in the maternity ward with my daughter and son-in-law was a dramatic reminder that new little people are arriving all the time! Since mothers typically stay in the hospital for only a night or two, even after a Caesarean, I was able to see the parade of women arriving to deliver and of new parents proudly carrying their tiny sleeping babies home in their car seats. The balloons, visitors, stuffed animals and pink and blue baby outfits were all signs of the celebration of new life. And it is an incredibly miraculous and joyful experience.

I’ve been blessed to spend time with my granddaughter (who spent the first two nights at granny’s house!) and with tiny Felix. This weekend my younger daughter and her partner came up to meet the newest member of our family. And I could hardly stop smiling as I watched my daughters and grandchildren together.

Of course I was mindful too of the words of one of my fellow hospice volunteers, whom I interviewed a couple of years ago for a paper I was writing on hospice volunteering. “We do a pretty good job at celebrating at the beginning of life” – and not so good at the end of life. Of course, the feelings are generally very different. I don’t mean to suggest that death is a happy event. But there is cause for celebrating the life that has been lived, the joys and sorrows shared (10,000 of each, according to the Buddha). But death, like birth, is a part of the cycle of life – and I would wish that we in the West could bring it out of the shadows and honour it as we do birth.

 

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