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 hold 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.”
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Photo by Chris Blakely at Flickr. Creative Commons License