Friday, February 27, 2015

The long walk

When Helena was admitted to hospital on February 7th, it soon became clear that she was not in good shape. Her heart wasn't doing well, she had pneumonia, and her kidneys had begun to fail. Her guardians, who have known her for years, set her End of Life plan in motion -- no invasive procedures, and only palliative comfort measures for a woman who hates hospitals. We're convinced she can hear us, though she hasn't opened her eyes for most of the past two weeks. She has been pampered by those who love her and who are able to visit.

On Monday, two of us decided to wash Helena's hair. She has always been a woman who is quite self-contained, who doesn't want a lot of contact, and as I gently shampooed her head, I realized that, before her hospital stay, the most I had ever touched her was perhaps a brief pat on the shoulder. It was a beautiful and humbling realization.

On Wednesday evening, at our L'Arche board meeting, the reality hit me -- in the last two weeks, all barriers have dropped, and we've all been able to touch and kiss and hold the hands of this woman... and now I'm suspecting that she's lingered longer than we expected because she's enjoying the contact she rarely allowed herself in the past.  The emotion I felt in the middle of the meeting brought a lump to my throat and made tears spill down my cheeks.

Tomorrow marks three full weeks that we have been walking with Helena in the hospital, and it has been a deeply graced journey. When it began, the sorrow, stress and second-guessing that came from hospitalizing their friend deeply affected the assistants who live with Helena on a daily basis, but in the weeks since, acceptance has taken the place of fear, anger and denial. They are starting to understand that they probably couldn't have saved her by going to emergency sooner. They have begun to realize that the guardians made the best decision for Helena. And they have slowly come to accept that it is her time to die. If our experience with Helena is not a clear example of how palliative care gives people and their loved ones time to heal some of the pain and sorrow caused by the abruptness and separation of death, there isn't one. Physician-assisted suicide robs everyone connected to the dying, and the dying themselves. Helena is teaching us all.

As I have more scheduled shifts at her bedside, playing my guitar, singing her favourite songs, holding her hand, and soon, being with the community during funeral preparation time after she dies, I might not be moodling much in the next while. Just so you know.

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