I attended my first funeral when I was 20 years old. The funeral was for a family friend. I had no idea what to expect, and I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say to people. I knew at that time I wanted to be a social worker, but assumed hospice work would never be for me. How could I possibly help people at this most difficult time when I wasn’t comfortable facing death myself?
It wasn’t until I was older (and wiser) that I realized many of the basic lessons I learned in school were also the same tenets I would share with my hospice families. These lessons allowed me to help the families adjust to their loved one’s terminal condition.
The first life lesson learned is that silence is OK. Just being present for someone and listening is often what is most needed. A gentle hand-holding can be very powerful. I often educate families on just “being there” for their loved one. Creating a “presence” for someone, especially when it is non-judgmental, accepting, and caring, can provide a comfort beyond words.
Another lesson learned is that you don’t necessarily have to fully accept a situation in order to get through it. We are all unique beings. Life does not come to us wrapped up all neat with a big red bow, and neither does death. I have learned to be more accepting of my own mortality, but it doesn’t mean that I have fully embraced it. And that’s OK.
Families and patients need to understand it’s alright to feel anger, frustration, helplessness, and fear. However, how we deal with a situation is normal for each of us. While it would be ideal for our patients and families to accept the dying process, denial is often a factor that puts a wrinkle in this plan. We need to allow them to lead us in their journey, to meet them where they are, not where we would like them to be.
My last life lesson was that in order to best help our patients and families, we need to set goals with them, not for them. Many times it is hard to see the whole picture. Sometimes it just works best to break a situation down, frame by frame, and have smaller, short-term goals. By developing relationships with our families, we can continue to grow, to teach, to listen, and to learn from one another. Enjoy the journey.