Monhegan Gull

One of our team members said that Shirley “died of loneliness.”

She had family, and whenever I met them they seemed to be attentive to her. I never heard her speak a word against them. But none of them were able to care for her in her final season of life.

When Shirley first came to hospice, she lived in her own apartment. A relative stayed with her, but – and I don’t remember all the details – she was either not capable or reliable enough to take care of a terminally ill patient. I recall that on my first visit this relative expressed her opinion that Shirley was not really as sick as they said she was and that she was going to be all right. She didn’t think she needed the medications we recommended. She didn’t want us there.

Shirley asked me for a Bible on that first encounter, and I got her one. She welcomed prayer. She was fairly quiet, overshadowed by her opinionated relative, but I liked her right away and told her I would look forward to seeing her again.

It wasn’t long before everyone realized the caregiving situation in the apartment wasn’t going to work. Even though Shirley had other family members in town, some of them very capable, their other responsibilities prevented them from providing the continuous level of care she needed. She also had family in California, including a little grandchild she adored, but circumstances kept them far, far apart geographically.

Shirley went into the hospital while plans were developed, and she ended up agreeing to go a wonderful facility in town that takes indigent hospice patients. And there she thrived.

She enjoyed the communal dining table where she could sit with the other residents and visit. The staff grew to love her and did a stellar job caring for her. The relatives she had in town also visited. One of our team members developed a strong bond with her and went often to see her. Shirley talked to her California family on the phone regularly and kept up with her grandchild’s growth and activities through pictures.

But Shirley only and always wanted one thing: to go home. She told that to our team members on almost every visit. And the longer she remained a hospice patient, the more she felt that way. Her disease progressed slowly through many ups and downs. Over time, more and more pictures of her little grandchild out west went up on her wall.

She slept a lot and there were long stretches, months at a time, when I would visit and never get a chance to really talk with her. She gained a lot of weight from the good food, lack of activity, the nature of her disease, and loneliness. I think it was easier for her to sleep.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, there came a time when Shirley perked up and became more herself. On one of my last visits, she was sitting on the side of her bed and a big smile came across her face. “I told the nurse I was hoping you’d come by!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been wanting to see my enthusiastic chaplain!”

She was as animated, conversant, and full of smiles as I’d ever seen her that day. I showed her pictures of my grandkids while she talked about her little one so far away. He would be coming to visit in a few weeks, and she couldn’t wait. She talked to him almost every day on the phone in anticipation.

That was on a Monday. By Thursday, to everyone’s surprise, she had slipped into a coma and was actively dying. I sat at her bedside and said prayers until a couple of family members arrived. I excused myself so they could have time with her. I went out to the foyer and sat at a table to do my paperwork. In a few minutes, I saw them walk out the door.

On Friday night Shirley died. Her family decided not to come to the facility. When I came back to work on Monday, I learned of her death and for the next several days I searched the obituaries, contacted funeral homes, and tried to call her family to find out the arrangements. All to no avail. At the end of the week, I finally got ahold of the relative who had lived with her in her apartment, back when we first met. There would be no service, she said.

Today, I had to write this down.

Someone should remember.

Someone should say it: “Shirley’s gone home.”

32 thoughts on “Shirley

  1. Thanks CM.

    It’s hard for people to understand the lead up to these situations. My mother was in a similar situation. My brothers and I got looks from the few friends she had as things neared the end as apparently she had been telling them about how we abandoned her. Not true but we didn’t argue the point. We just showed up every few years to deal with the crisis of the moment then left as she told us to basically “get lost”. It’s hard for outsiders to understand the previous 60 years when they’ve only seen the last 6 months. (The less than 5 close friends she had every time we showed up were always different.)

    And the really sad part is my mother in law is headed for the same place. We’ve had her living with us for over 6 years and are just burned out by her constant complaints and actions. So she will soon be moving to a care facility and get to tell everyone how we have abandoned her.

    I wish my wife and I had better memories of our mothers but it will not be so.


  2. Fr John Behr gives a very thoughtful and theologically informed talk on “Death – The Final Frontier”. He has been talking a lot about “taking back death”, as Christians.



  3. Thank you for this. I worked as a hospice nurse for almost 10 years. Most people had someone else involved in their lives, but there are always those who are alone. Once I had a patient pass and had no one to notify of his death. (I was always glad I took him a Frosty to share.)

    And sometimes we are alone even when surrounded by family and friends. The spouse of many years is already embracing life without us, the children have their own worries and children as well. Not anyone’s fault, just the way it goes sometimes.

    And working among the dying is also extremely isolating. No faster way to shut down a conversation then to tell someone you are a hospice nurse.

    Death can be compared to giving birth. You can support the person, you can encourage and love them, but ultimately they have to do it themselves.

    I think that living in the shadow of death would be to much apart from my trust that my life is remembered by my Creator.


  4. In one of the languages I speak, the phrase for deliberately remembering something has a form of the verb “to place” in it. There is a recognition that when one remembers, one is creating a place for the person or event being remembered. To me, this is much closer to the full meaning of remember as often used in the Bible than anything English can convey.

    Knowing that made your post even more touching and beautiful to me. Thank you for giving Shirley a place by remembering her, and for helping us to do the same.


  5. What Christiane said.

    I am so very glad Shirley had you there, Chaplain Mike. IMO, your gentle mention of “circumstances” preventing the family from visiting her is a little too gentle.

    Not surprising, though. I visited an elderly woman in a nursing home whose family never set foot in the place — until they learned I was visiting her. Even then, I came about four times as often as they did. And then my mom was in a nearby nursing home for a few months — until we saw it was terrible and got her out of there. That nursing home had so many “issues.” But when the administrator, responding to my complaints and those of another person, sent out notices to all 40 or 50 families to come to a meeting to discuss these things, the only people who showed up were me and the other person. Nursing homes are sometimes just dumping grounds for the unwanted. This one was a grim example. Thank heavens mom got into a really nice place where she made friends and enjoyed herself.

    Yes, I will be Shirley, I expect. I hope someone with your compassion, CM, is around to see me off.


  6. Amen.

    I wept for her. Not that she ‘went home’, but that people in her family didn’t care for her when they had the opportunity. How often is this story played out in our land, where relatives are spread out over great distances? When I was child, my memere and pepere’s home was a part of a ‘compound’ with two aunts in the vicinity, one right next door. One aunt lived with my paternal grandparents and nursed them in their final years and days. They were loved. There was no question.

    In my mother’s family, it was different. Even as a child, I saw the difference. The story about Shirley stirred those memories and the sadness of them.


  7. I’ve learned that parking lot chats are really awesome. I used to go to a men’s group that lasted about 2 hours, then several of us would spend another 2 hours afterward chatting in the parking lot.


  8. One of the first liturgical prayers I ever knew of, besides the Our father, and still one of my favorites, is the Mourner’s Kaddish:

    “yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabo…”

    Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
    which He has created according to His will.

    May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
    and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
    and say, Amen.

    May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

    Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
    adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
    beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
    are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

    May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
    and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

    He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
    may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
    and say, Amen.


  9. In the Eastern Church, when we hear someone has died, we make the sign of the cross and say, “Memory eternal.” That is, may God keep this person in *His* memory – because if God were not to continue remembering us, we would cease to exist.

    I don’t have too many worries about dying alone, but what I do worry about is that there will be no one to pray for me after I’m gone. Husband doesn’t believe in it; children are not, at this point, confessing Christians; no grandchildren yet. I used to have qualms about praying for the departed – though that didn’t keep me from talking to them sometimes…

    At some point late in my journey I thought that since Christianity came out of Judaism, it would be instructive to see what Jewish people do about praying for the dead, and if that reaches back to, or past, the first century. I thought if that were so, then prayer for the dead being okay was at least plausible. Here’s a bit from the Wikipedia article on prayer for the dead:

    “Prayers for the dead form part of the Jewish services. The prayers offered on behalf of the deceased consist of: Recitation of Psalms, and reciting a thrice daily communal prayer in Aramaic which is known as Kaddish. Kaddish actually means “Sanctification” (or “Prayer of Making Holy”) which is a prayer “In Praise of God”… also a Hazkara which is said either on the annual commemoration known as the Yahrzeit as well on Jewish holidays. The form in use in England contains the following passage: ‘Have mercy upon him; pardon all his transgressions . . . Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life.’ (Ideally, the entire book of Psalms is chanted over the body of the departed Orthodox person between death and the funeral. -D)

    “El Maleh Rachamim is the actual Jewish prayer for the dead… One version reads: ‘God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens’ heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.’

    “A record of Jewish prayer and offering of sacrifice for the dead at the time of the Maccabees is seen being referred to in 2 Maccabees, a book written in Greek, which, though not accepted as part of the Jewish Bible, is regarded as canonical by Eastern Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church: ‘…In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had ***the resurrection of the dead*** in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.'” (emphasis mine – Resurrection talk became widespread among Jews beginning about 150 BCE, according to Wright)

    There is disagreement about when the Jewish canon closed; most scholars say some time between when the Maccabbean books were written and about 300 CE. But those other books like Wisdom and Maccabbees (our deuterocanonicals, or “apocrypha”) were included in the Septuagint, which is the version of the OT of the early Christians, and was widely read by Jews in Jesus’ day.

    So: plausible.

    Orthodoxy doesn’t say exactly how our prayers help the dead, just that they do. I find this extremely comforting, because it’s all about love – our love and God’s love. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?…I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Remembering a departed person in prayer is a very active kind of love, too.



  10. May God grant his servant Shirley rest in a place of verdure and light, and make her memory to be eternal.



  11. I do not belong to a church, but routinely visit a few in my area. I note that none have a seniors’ group or meetup of any kind although they have many “small groups” for members. I recently found a distant Methodist church with two weekday morning prayer gatherings, come & go as you like between 7 and 9. Pray as you like. What a nice idea. Attended twice so far, and those few that also attend are all solo seniors, too. The lobby and parking lot chats draw me back.


  12. There are multitudes of individuals whose names are know only to the Father. May the Father’s grace be with them and us.


  13. Eeyore this is me as well – no family, and more that compounds my situation. i struggle & sorrow.
    God bless Shirley…and all of us alone. May she be in joy and fellowship now.


  14. Solomon warned us:
    New International Version
    No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

    New Living Translation
    We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now.

    English Standard Version
    There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

    Commit your life to Jesus – the Living God and you are eternal. Amazing grace that.


  15. My wife and I married later in life and have no children. We have occasionally discussed the possibility of a lonely passing and even sort of prepare, if that’s even possible, mentally, emotionally and financially for that possibility. God bless Shirley. Her passing has been observed.


  16. I hear you. I am the youngest, and last, of my bloodline. I will in all likelihood be its terminus.


  17. I say this not to be trite, or paper over horrible things with pet verses. This story hits home. I have no extended family. I have no brothers or sisters, and no children. While I am older than my wife, there is no guarantee she will outlive me. There is a real possibility that, in my own twilight, *I* will be Shirley. And if the Lord is not there in His mercy, what hope can I have?


  18. If there is any hope in situations like this, it is this…

    Precious in the sight of the Lord are the deaths of His faithful servants.


  19. Much remains a mystery to me, as is so often the case with our patients and families. We know them. We don’t know them. We observe. We theorize. But we often see through a glass darkly. We serve. We pray. We remain available. We hope.


  20. I have nothing intelligent to say except I’m glad you were there and that no one should have to die alone. I am just curious what her story was all about? Where were the people that loved her? If none did, then why not? I wish I we could have all shared those last days with her.


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