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While the Hollywood image of dying often features a loving family gathering around the deathbed, life often presents a very different reality. In a chapter in my book – entitled “One Big Happy Family” – I talk about some of the challenges families may face at this difficult time. I often say that each of us, when the faced of a parent, becomes an exaggerated version of ourselves with both our best and worst characteristics showing up in spades. As well, conflicts that might have occurred decades before may resurface as siblings vie for attention and recognition.

End of Life University

What do you do when a family (your own or a patient’s) is crumbling due to unhealed resentments and irreconcilable differences? Find out now.

conflictpodcast

In today’s episode I’ll share my best tips for helping families move through conflict toward resolution during stressful times like the death of a loved one. I’ve had lots of experience with this work during my years as a hospice doctor so be prepared for a longer-than-usual episode!

Announcements:

slide01My new course Step-by-Step Roadmap for End-of-Life Planning is almost ready for release (just a few days away as I record this!) The course is simple yet comprehensive and will help you examine your mindset, values, beliefs, and fears about death before you make decisions about your end-of-life healthcare. Go to eoluniversity.com/roadmap to learn more and sign up to be notified as soon as the course is released.

Sponsorship:

supportonpatreon-e1412764908776This podcast is sponsored through the EOLU donation page…

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http://www.pallimed.org/2017/01/the-dying-dont-need-your-permission-to.html

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this article by hospice social worker, Lizzy Miles. She’s also a blogger, writer, and credited with bringing the first Death Cafe to the United States. This article challenges the widely held view that we should tell a person who is near death that “it’s OK to go.”

As a hospice volunteer for many years, I’ve often heard that advice given to family members and I know that I’ve offered it on a few occasions.

The first person I said those words to was my sister Carol. She was very near death and I was sitting at her bedside, singing softly, holding her hand, speaking quietly. “You’re safe now,” I told her over and over. “It’s OK to go.”

I was operating on instinct more than anything I remember being told.  It just felt right. She’d had such a long struggle, filled with pain and near constant nausea. She was safe now, at the hospital (though she had never wanted to be there), with me by her side as she’d wanted.

And much as I never wanted to let her go, I knew it was time. All the possibilities for a cure had been exhausted. Every remedy for pain relief had been tried. It felt like it was time to let her go. I told her I loved her, that she would always be in my heart, and, hardest of all, that I would be OK. The last thing felt like the farthest thing from anything I felt. I felt like I would never be OK, that I would never get over losing her. Yet, I knew in my heart that I had to tell her I would be alright after she died. That we would all be OK. And I had to let her go.

Recently a family member asked me if she should tell her father it was alright for him to die. She told me her mother had asked her to say that, believing that her father was holding on for her. “What do you think?” she asked me. “Should I tell him?”

I had just read the article a few days before and Lizzy Miles’ advice was fresh in my mind. Still I could hear the daughter’s suffering and I wanted to respond.

After a long minute of silence I said, “I think there does come a time when we need to let go. When we need to reassure the person we love that we’ll be OK, even though we don’t feel like that right now. I think they might need to hear that we’ll be OK, even though our hearts may be broken.”

I don’t know what she told her father, though I know she seemed comforted by my words.

In this world there is so much we can never know. Before my sister died, I called myself the least spiritual person I knew. I almost bragged about it. After she died, I began to speak of death as a mystery, the incomprehensible space between life and no life. My years at hospice have only strengthened that belief in the mystery of life and death.

I speak less now. I listen more. And I grow more at ease with not knowing.

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Last Thursday, October 13th, was International Hospice Palliative Care day. And in Canada, this is national Hospice Palliative Care month. Each week, the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association is reminding us of the importance of talking about death and dying, advance care directives, and the need for access to hospice palliative care.

Last Friday, I gave a keynote address to the Bereavement Ontario Network at Geneva Park near Orillia. It was wonderful to have the change to talk about the history of death and dying and current and future trends in death, dying, and bereavement. (In case you were wondering where I had disappeared to, I was madly writing my talk right up until the deadline!)

Before I head off to my hospice shift today, I wanted to share this article, written by an Irish woman, about she and her family’s failure to talk to their mother about her impending death. It’s a great reminder to all of us to talk about what we and the people we love want at the end of our lives (and about the fact that death can happen at any time, not just many many years from now when we are very old!)

‘I regret not talking to my mother about her death, don’t do the same thing’

Talk to the people you love – your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends. Don’t wait until it’s too late!

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This letter, by writer Peter DeMarco, to the people who cared for his wife in her final days, reminds me of the quality of care we provide for dying people and their families in hospice.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/06/well/live/a-letter-to-the-doctors-and-nurses-who-cared-for-my-wife.html?_r=0

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to be part of the first annual Provincetown Book Festival. There were wonderful readings by poets, novelists, memoirists, and others, great discussions, and a book fair, where authors displayed and sold their books. Along with 14 other authors, I spent the beautiful sunny day sharing my work and selling and signing my book.

I was a little concerned that people in a vacation spot like Provincetown might not be interested in buying a book about caregiving, death and dying. What surprised me was how many people shared their own stories with me – deeply personal intimate stories of illness, caring for parents, and coming to terms with death.

Many of the people who approached my table shook their heads when I told them what the book was about – not because they weren’t interested, but because their parents were dead. “I cared for my parents into their nineties,” one woman said. “And we cared for my partner’s parents too. It was a long stretch.”

Not surprisingly, given the fact that daughters by far and away do the work of caregiving in comparison to sons, most of the people who stayed to talk with me were women. Now in their 60s, they were beginning to think about their own aging process, and who might care for them. “I better give that book to my kids,” one woman laughed. “It’ll be their turn soon.”

For those women who don’t have offspring to whom they can turn, the options may be more limited. Nieces (and nephews) may be willing to take up the task of caring for their aging aunts (and uncles) – but it’s likely they’ll have their own parents to worry about already.

As Baby Boomers, many of us are fiercely independent, and dread the thought of becoming a burden on our children or family members. I urge readers of my book to begin talking about these issues now, before it’s too late, and we find ourselves in a state of emergency. What heartened me about yesterday was how many people were more than willing to have these discussions – with one another, with other people who approached my table (and my fellow writers, and with me.

A couple of women who came by the table said that the topic of my book was just too close to home. Two women had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and were undergoing treatment. A stark reminder of how present cancer and other illnesses are in all our lives.

This willingness to talk openly about life and death is one of the reasons why I love being in Provincetown. Yes, lots of people are here to spend their days at the beach, before relaxing at the tea dances, restaurants, and bars, but many others still carry the memories and images of how AIDS devastated this town in the 80s and 90s. Provincetown has a higher proportion of people with HIV/AIDS than the rest of the country, and year round Provincetown residents work with and support the services that sustain people with HIV/AIDS. They are more than willing to share their stories with me over a glass of wine at the bar where I love to write.

Sometimes I worry that too many people have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to illness, death and dying (as in, if I don’t talk about it, it won’t get me!) Being able to have talks such as the ones I’ve had here in Provincetown give me hope that some people are embracing the opportunities to talk.

PS: The book fair got terrific coverage in the Cape Cod Sunday Times!

Here’s the link to the story:

http://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20160918/authors-drawn-to-provincetown-book-festival#ReaderReaction

 

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An article I wrote was just published on a wonderful site called KevinMD. Here’s the link:

http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/09/helping-hospice-present-much-important-busy.html

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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When my father was dying, I often found myself saying, “I wish someone would tell me how this ends.” It wouldn’t take more than a minute before I’d catch myself. I knew very well how it would end. I knew it would only end when my father died. Whether peacefully (as it mercifully turned out) or with enormous suffering (as I rarely see at hospice), it ends in death.

And the fact was, I wasn’t ready for him to die yet. He was still of sound mind – at 94 – though his body had begun to fail. He was no longer able to go to a restaurant to eat dinner – one of our favourite activities. Eventually he stopped having “cocktail hour” with me – the only one of his four daughters who enjoyed this ritual with him. Still, we could sit and watch television together – Who wants to be a millionaire? Golf and curling – things I relished with him and would not be caught watching otherwise. I clung to those shared rituals like a drowning woman. Indeed, most days I felt like I was drowning.

Anything was better than losing my father – this man of wisdom, of knowledge, of family history.

Like the families I meet each week at hospice, I knew all too well where this was leading – but the routines of caregiving, be they cooking or grocery shopping or making phone calls, can distract us however briefly from the ultimate point of this journey. The person we love is dying. The person we love will no longer be in our lives. The person we love will leave us – forever.

Somehow we have to balance that knowledge along with carrying on the activities of caregiving. In fact, those activities are essential to providing care and maintaining our own sanity.

Soon enough we will experience what one family recently termed a “wake-up call.” When I asked him what he meant, he spoke eloquently about the impact that another patient’s death had had on him. “This is why we’re here,” he said. Not that he had really forgotten. Not that any of us is likely to forget for long.

And so we do our best, showing up as our best selves. This is what I hope I did for my father. And it is what I see families doing, week after week, at the hospice where I volunteer.

 

 

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