For the better part of 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of serving people in the community as a hospice RN. This time in my nursing career has been more of a blessing to me, I’m sure, than to anyone I’ve served. People have asked me a thousand times, “Isn’t that depressing?” The answer is “no”. The other question was “How can you do that?” The answer is “Because people are amazing to their very last breath, and everyone has an equally amazing story to tell”. Sometimes, always, it was sad, but never depressing.
It’s just never a good feeling, never a hoped-for thing to get a hospice referral, because it means something terminal is going on in the body, something which, in the best judgment of the doctor, cannot be fixed, and eventually, despite the best efforts of medicine, will likely end in death. No one comes home from a doctor’s appointment with a big, old smile on their faces, to announce “I get to start hospice!” Of course not. It’s a confusing, anguishing, mind-reeling time, filled with thousands of questions, not the least of which are, “Maybe there’s been a mistake. Maybe a second opinion. Maybe it’ll be different this time. Maybe I’ll beat it.” And, sometimes that happens. Sometimes people do beat it. And sometimes they don’t. But, I’ve learned not to diminish the power of the human spirit in things of this nature. Ever.
It was amazing to me what people could do if they had to do it. The worst and the best in people came out. But people always came through, one way or another, and I had little to do with it. I saw things that were awe-inspiring, amazing, uplifting, heart-rendering, and some things that were simply unexplainable. I certainly felt helpless at times, and I wanted to fix it, or at least explain why it couldn’t be fixed. Nurses always want to fix it, and to give an answer to “why?”. But sometimes there is no answer and there is no fix. In the long-run, it’s kinder to just say so. ”Ifs” and “maybes” can be very unkind.
Some things that shouldn’t be, were, despite what the doctors and the labs said. Sometimes the impossible was possible. I saw animals respond to the illness and loss of their masters. And the dying spoke of things they saw or heard or knew, things that I couldn’t explain. I never doubted what the dying told me they saw or heard or knew: so many told of similar things. I learned that often the most helpful thing to do was to be silent, and I came to understand how heavy something as weightless as silence can be. Sometimes, doing nothing is the hardest thing of all to do. Just sitting and being in the presence of grief was the most needed thing of all.
If I could go back in time, knowing what I now know about hospice, I would make the same choice. I would become a hospice RN. I would choose to make those journeys, again, filled with wonder and sadness and grief and awe. I would walk the walk, again, with those amazing people who I have known, the people who I will never forget, the people who allowed me into their lives at a most vulnerable time, who shared their hopes and dreams and fears and grief with me. In doing so, they gave me the greatest gift of all: they taught me how to live, how to love, and then how to let go.
© Janet Mitchell. September, 2011.