Thursday, July 21, 2016

being there when it matters

Today a group of us gathered together at the local care home to remember one of our neighbours. She had decided she didn't want a funeral but was happy for us to do something later to remember her, so that's what we did.

She knew she was dying, and I suspect she'd guessed long before the doctors did, but I don't think any of us were prepared for how quickly she'd go in the end. Somewhat unexpectedly Phyllis and I found ourselves nominated as 'next of kin' in her last few weeks and were left with all that goes with that responsibility. Her social worker is tying up a lot of the loose ends now, but we still have stuff in our garage and decisions to make. I suppose I should be grateful for the opportunity to have a 'practice run' at this task when dealing with someone I hadn't been all that close to until the last few weeks. For a number of reasons there wasn't anyone else so I just did it; there but for the grace of god go I after all. One day someone most likely not related will need to do the same for me, call it paying it forward or something.

But it was hard to sit there with her in her final day holding her hand and basically waiting for her to die. Just before I got there a dose of some sedative had been given to relax her as she had been very anxious and agitated. Slowly her laboured and uneven breathing became less tortured and her body relaxed a little, but she was still fighting every breath and it was hard to know if she was fighting to keep breathing, or fighting against her body, willing it to just stop and be done with it. She was ready to go, had accepted that and oh how I wish that sedative could've been bumped up enough to end things more quickly. I kept thinking how we'd think it cruel not to put down an animal in the same circumstances, and how important animals had been in the life of the woman slowly dying before me.

I'd been thinking I was holding things together pretty well until one of the staff came in after her shift finished to say goodbye, 'I'll see you again' she said as she bent to kiss her forehead, then looked at me with tears in her eyes and we both knew it was highly unlikely to happen in this world. Then another one coming on shift came in and stood next to me as we watched those tortured breaths gradually ease, she put her arm over my shoulders and gave me a hug and I almost bawled my eyes out. I wasn't so much grieving for my loss, but for the circumstances that brought us together in that way. Our neighbour had always come across as a cheerful friendly person and yet I had come to realize in those last few weeks how difficult her life had been and how little I had actually known her. I felt sorry for not having made more effort to get to know her better over the last five years.

Phyllis then joined me for some of the time and we sat together watching those uneven breaths, wondering if each pause was the last. I was so grateful for the company. It was a very special time sharing the vigil, talking to each other and to our friend, hoping that somehow she was aware of our presence and took comfort from it.

Over three hours passed as I sat there until I reached the point where I knew I too had to go home. Much as I wanted to be with her to the end I knew that in 38hrs I was heading off to JYF Camp and needed to have heart and mind prepared for that, not to mention finish packing and complete a report for work I'd abandoned to sit with her when Switzer home had rung me that afternoon.

I don't know how the staff at Switzer home, and other such places, go through the process of death and dying on a regular basis. I know from working in day care for the elderly that it is hard not to get emotionally attached to those you look after, but we were generally spared dealing with the actual dying process even if we did have what we called 'season tickets for the crematorium'. Knowing that at least one of the staff cared enough to shed tears over someone they'd most likely known less than a week was reassuring, and was what enabled me to feel that I could head home when I did. I knew my friend, as I now thought of her rather than simply my neighbour, was in good hands and with kind hearts. They too were stepping up and being there when it mattered, that they were being paid for it was irrelevant. I'd be an emotional wreck before the week was out in that job, they're welcome to it.

The call came from the undertakers the next morning to let us know she'd died in the night and was now with them. It was a relief to know that it was over for her, and also that I wasn't about to go away feeling like I was abandoning her. In many ways I took her with me, not only in my thoughts but in the assorted kitchen things from her house that I took for JYF Camp, from a stack of tea towels to bolster supplies at Friends House Waiheke to open packets of herbs and spices etc that couldn't go to the foodbank and would save me buying a packet for the sake of the couple of teaspoonfuls needed; all packed into her very useful shopping trolleybag.

Whilst we were at Yearly Meeting towards the end of JYF Camp I was sitting with a f/Friend who had heard that someone associated with Friends but that she didn't know had just been involved in a fatal car crash; the partner of this woman had been killed and she was in hospital near where they and my f/Friend lived. I was asked if I thought she should visit or would that be intrusive? She'd like to help but didn't know if it was appropriate. So I told her about the last few weeks and how I'd ended up with the 'next of kin' role simply because I was who was there and available. I'd come to the conclusion that actually knowing someone well previously didn't matter, it was being there when needed that did, as no-one should have to go through such things alone. So the hospital visit was planned.

I hadn't expected to be able to share my learning from my experience so soon, and I felt that it was no coincidence that had led the two of us to squeeze in behind the bookstall table to grab a comfy seat, but a case of what I've heard call 'godincidence'. Despite the surrealness of finding myself literally going through everything in a house I'd only been inside once in 5yrs until a few weeks ago it somehow felt right, that it was meant to be. It felt spirit led, and so I simply didn't question the whys and wherefores or where I'd find the energy, I just figured it would all pan out and it did.

It felt strange to come home from JYF Camp and see someone else now living in the unit I was in and out of like a yo-yo for the couple of weeks or so before I went away. But the whole experience has helped me meet a couple more neighbours I didn't previously know, and strengthen connections with others. That feels appropriate, as having lost the person who somehow made the street feel like a community we're all going to have to step up and look out for each other a bit more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sounds a lovely care home, mum's one was like that with staff popping in to say "hello" and "goodbye" as they worked and lots of very caring staff. Like you I could never ever do that job. I'm so glad she was able to die knowing that her things were being dealt with in the best way possible by you.