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Preface: I just reread my last post, written nearly a month ago. I love the optimism in the conclusion, my happiness at being home amidst all my fixed points. Alas, within a few days I had somehow suffered an injury that left me with a pulled piriformis muscle and a resulting pinching of my sciatic nerve. (I know, this is too much information for most of you!) The result has been intense pain such that I have rarely experienced (48 hours of labour outdoes it but that was long ago, and with an excellent result!) It’s given me a new perspective on pain, on how exhausting and debilitating it is – and yet how largely invisible pain is, and thus people can assume (wrongly!) that it’s no big deal.

Many times over the past weeks, I’ve thought about how people reacted to my sister’s pain – suggesting she might be exaggerating or even making it up. I remember the orderlies who demanded that she “scoot over” onto their gurney from her hospital bed. Riddled with tumours up and down her spine, she could barely move, let alone “scoot over” upon command.

My sciatic pain was nothing compared to hers, which is why I hesitated to write about it. But as a nurse I worked with yesterday at hospice said, “it’s certainly not a lot of fun.”

All that to say, I haven’t been sitting at my desk for a long time – hence my silence here.

As readers may remember, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of my sister Carol’s death. As the date approached, I’ve thought a lot about the impact of her death on my life, and about what it means to lose a sibling. So I will share some of those thoughts here.

I fully recognize that not all siblings are close, often separated as they are by geography, age and even generation, by life choices, and historic grievances tracing back to childhood. Though my sister and I had had a few low points in her relationship (especially when I became a hippie and frequently criticized her for taking a “straight job.” I was insufferable!) But once I came to my senses and returned to university to become a teacher myself, our bond grew closer and closer.

When our mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, Carol and I promised we would care for one another when we were sick or in need of help. And I was able to fulfill my half of that bargain when her cancer (originally diagnosed in 1978) returned with an unstoppable force in January 1997.

As often happens when someone is seriously ill, we became closer than we had ever been. Spending hours together, watching videos and bad daytime TV, remembering our childhood antics, talking about hopes and dreams (and fears).

When she died on July 4, 1997, I was devastated. Even though we all knew the end was coming, we had focussed on the immediate – tests, blood transfusions, medications – anything to make her more comfortable. My days were taken up with helping her, organizing her care, and commuting back and forth between Toronto, where she lived, and Ottawa where my immediate family resided. And then, suddenly, all that was gone. After months of thinking about what Carol needed, I had no idea how to carry on.

One of my strongest memories from that period was my desire for some sort of visible sign of my loss. A black arm band, a long black dress (as worn by widows in the Portuguese and Italian communities where I had lived for many years) – something to indicate that I was in mourning.

Though friends and colleagues sent cards and flowers immediately after Carol’s death, soon enough (far too soon for me) they began to carry on as if nothing had happened. Yes, I had a brand new job as the Director of Women’s Studies, and there were responsibilities I had to fulfill. But I still needed consoling.

What I found so difficult was the silence. Perhaps people didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps they found my bereaved state frightening. I had certainly been in their shoes before Carol died.  But now I experienced first hand the impact of avoidance and silence.

One factor, I think, was that most people my age had not yet experienced the loss of a close contemporary, be it a friend or relative. I was only 47 and Carol, just 51. While most of us experienced our grandparents’ deaths, and some of us, parents, siblings were part of the fabric of our lives, people who knew us from the very beginning (or soon thereafter), people with whom we could still consider ourselves young and more or less invincible.

At hospice, I see many people who are faced with the death of a sibling. I can still vividly recall the first person – her sister was a teacher, as Carol had been, her career and life now cut short by cancer’s horrible force. Her sister brought in baked goods almost every time she visited, and she would share the lemon bread, blueberry muffins, and other treats with the staff and volunteers. It was something concrete she could do, when there was nothing she could do to prevent her sister from dying.

Though we are not supposed to talk about our personal lives, I told this woman that my sister had died four years before. We didn’t discuss details, only that I, like her, had been her caregiver. She thanked me for telling her about my loss, and I could see her shoulders relax as she realized that she was not the only one.

Several years later, I bumped into her on the street.

“You know what I tell people?” she told me. “I tell them that when I met you, and I could see that you had lost your sister and you were still standing, and volunteering even, I knew I would survive the loss of my sister too.”

After Carol died, I searched for books that might help me deal with my loss and grief. While there were many books on parental and spousal loss, I found virtually nothing about losing a sibling. It’s one of the reasons I started writing about Carol around the time that I took the hospice training. Not only did I want to honour her with my words, but I wanted to let others know that I understand what it means to lose someone who has known (and put up with) you your entire life.

The death of a sibling can leave a deep and abiding void in one’s life. There will never be another Carol in my life. But I am grateful beyond words for what she taught me. And for the ways she has enabled me to help others through their loss and grief.

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When I started my post earlier today, I thought I was going to write about why I had to cut my Provincetown writing trip short. But as often happens when I sit down to write, the words take me somewhere else.

Two and a half weeks ago, I packed up four file boxes of writing, a bin full of writing tools (pads, pens, extra computer, many books, printer cartridges, label maker – of course!) and headed off to Provincetown for my annual writing retreat. I’d booked four weeks this year – two of them in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center where I took my first writing class in 2001 and two of them at the Cape Codder Guest House where I have taken refuge every year since then. I was excited as I drove the 10 hours to my destination (in two days) and thrilled as I set up my computer on the desk in studio 4.

Unfortunately, by the first evening, I had a sort throat. By the second, I was blowing my nose non-stop, and by the third I was in bed, trying to find my voice again, and cursing the germ that had settled into my lungs. Grandchildren germs, I thought, remembering the coughs my daughter and her children were sharing freely before I left Ottawa.

I didn’t curse for long, however. Instead (perhaps miraculously) I found myself contemplating what opportunities being sick was offering to me. No, I didn’t think it was meant to be that I should get sick. But yes, I did find myself thinking, as I often do when I get sick, about the fragility of health, and life itself. As I lay in bed in this foreign land, I found myself appreciating the Canadian health care where I could visit a doctor without ever seeing a bill. (I’m always a little scared when I get sick in the US as I do NOT want to have to visit a US medical facility!) I appreciated my family (even as I wished I were closer to them at that moment), the many drug store items I had brought with me so that I didn’t have to spend precious American dollars, and the super duper soft Kleenex I splurged on, to soothe my weary nose.

I thought about how little I really needed – a salad from the health food store within easy walking distance, some chicken from Farland, my favourite lunch and provisions store. The lack of sun (and abundance of rain) made it that much easier to lie in bed and read or watch Netflix – and if I ran out of reading material, Provincetown’s fabulous library was just up the street.

For the most part I wasn’t able to write (hence the lack of blog posts for the past while), except for some scribbled pages at Harbor Lounge, three small blocks from my studio, with a fabulous view of the bay and the wharf (and wonderful cocktails and wine -the sign says it all – no food, just booze!)

By the end of the first weekend, I was feeling pretty proud of myself for being able to manage on my own. That’s when I noticed that I was scratching my head far more than usual – in fact, I was crazy itchy. The explanation arrived on Monday morning, when my daughter told me her children had lice. A quick try to the Shop and Stop (as I call it) for a comb and conditioner and I soon discovered that I too had lice. Not a million, but really, isn’t one more than enough.

I have to admit I was ready to throw in the towel at that point. Coughing, blowing my nose, achy, and now, LICE. My intrepid partner soon tracked down a lice lady on Cape Cod and urged me to give her a call. Feeling somewhat ashamed (who feels good about having lice?) I called the expert known as The Picky One. She sounded lovely – very matter of fact but kind – and we arranged for her to come to my studio the following day at noon.

To say I enjoyed our time together would be pushing it. She was, after all, picking nits off of my head. But we talked about aging parents and caregiving, and the challenges of dealing with children and parents at the same time. I told her about my book. She told me about how her father’s death had changed her. Before she left, she bought a copy of my book, and the next day, wrote to tell me she was crying by page 6 – while offering reassurances about my itchy head.

Many many loads of laundry and trips to the somewhat grungy laundromat later, I was ready to pack it in. I itched, I was still coughing and blowing my nose, and I still felt pretty miserable. My partner flew down to “rescue” me, we spent a beautiful sunny day in Provincetown, and then headed back home. As I packed up all the things I hadn’t used, file boxes unopened, art bag untouched, books unread, I admit to feeling regret that my retreat had not been as I had hoped.

But my time in Provincetown provided me with some important reminders – about taking care of myself, about letting go of expectations, about being with whatever happens. It reminded me of how much I like my life with its fixed points: hospice, volunteering with kindergarten children, playing the ukulele, spending time with my family and friends, walking by the river, singing in my choir. And I’m happy to be home again.

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As anyone who knows me (and that includes readers of this blog, of course), I am not a person who believes that everything happens for a reason. Whether it’s a death, the loss of a close friend, a job, or a house, the onset of a serious illness – the list is long for the events for which some people are determined to find a “silver lining.” When my mother suffered a massive brain aneurysm, when my sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and on many other occasions in my life, well intentioned friends and acquaintances would attempt to console me with the thought that even these devastating events happened for a reason.

Most of the time I’ve managed to control myself enough not to lash out (or worse) at these people. Instead, I point out that terrible things rarely if ever happen for a reason. Rather, what matters is what we make of the situation – how we come to terms with it, how we respond, how we make meaning in our lives. Readers here will know that the experience of my sister’s death transformed me in ways I am still coming to understand. My ability to be with suffering and death, my passion for hospice palliative care, my commitment to helping others deal with illness and dying, all stem from caring for Carol when she was dying. So too do my meditation practice, my writing and speaking about caregiving, and my heightened intuitive sense of the suffering of others.

Carol’s death didn’t create these things, of course – nor are they the “reason” she died. But they are part of the meaning I found in the aftermath of losing her.

On July 4th, it will be the 20th anniversary of my sister’s death. I’m not sure yet how I will honour her  (though I do know I have a hospice shift that day, which seems like a fitting way to celebrate her!) No doubt, I’ll write something, as I have so often in the past 20 years. And I’ll remember, with enormous gratitude, all the things my big sister taught me in our 47 years together.

 

 

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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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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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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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