To The Last Breath

Welcome to our meandering thoughts in "To the Last Breath."
This blog is an exploration of living life fully until we die.

Various authors associated with HSCD will contribute to our postings, and we invite you to share your comments in return.
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Six Ways From Sunday

6 ways from sunday
This week's blog is from film maker and podcaster, Ben Wilson.

"Six Ways from Sunday" is a weekly podcast, an extension of the work of Bashaw United Church. Each week explores how we live, love and connect in the world, through casual conversations on topics of faith and religion, over a cup of coffee.

This week SWFS interviews HSCD Program Coordinator, Bill Harder.

Death and grieving aren't topics people seem to want to talk about, until they have to. After attending a grief workshop with Bill last fall I knew that he needed to come on the SWFS podcast to share more of his wisdom and his story. As the program coordinator for the Camrose Hospice Society, Bill offers direct support to those who are grieving a loss, as well as training volunteers and sitting bedside with people who are actively dying. The work Bill does is important, deep soul work.

Click here to listen to the podcast interview

“I Didn’t Cry at Her Funeral” 

Jessica blog
May 1, 2019
This week's blog is written by Hospice volunteer, Jessica Johnson

I didn’t cry at her funeral.

Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. I shed one tear at her graveside, and then I stopped myself. And now… I can’t. No matter how hard I try.

They are frozen inside.

What is wrong with me? Am I broken (Well, isn’t that redundant, since I can’t even begin to count the pieces of my shattered heart)? Did I use up all of my tears in the hospital? In the days following her death? Is this just how grief goes?

I cried at her bedside. I couldn’t stop at times. When we found out that the cancer (adenosarcoma) had, in her words, jumped a racetrack to her lungs, I cried an ocean of tears. Salty tears licked my cheeks and stained them, leaving a path that identified my broken heart.

I knew when they told me the cancer had spread that she was dying, and I felt like I was too. I was losing a piece of my heart and how was I supposed to function without a whole heart?

I cried so hard I choked myself on tears. I sat with her in the hospital and held her as she cried, because, even though she knew the reality of her disease, she was suddenly faced with her own mortality. (And, since death doesn’t care about convenience, her sister - her best friend - died the day after the Doctors said she too would. I watched her sob, heartbroken at the loss of her best friend. And it made me realize that I was going to be her soon – sobbing at the loss of someone who was my happy place.) I felt my heart, beating strong only days before, as it fractured inside me.

But somehow, when she held my hand, and asked me not to leave her, the threads rejoined, if only for a while.

She had us at her beck and call, and we never would’ve changed that.

For five days, my family and I took turns with her. Crying, laughing, telling stories.

Quietly sitting with our matriarch.

Laughter helped us to mask our sadness. Through stories, song and jokes we thrived (surely driving the nursing staff crazy). That was what she wanted, and needed. Arguably as much as she needed us, we needed to be there with her, protecting her as best we could from the monster that is death.

We prayed her pain away, silently, but loud enough for the world to hear.

Prayer doesn’t cure cancer. Like a thief in the shadow of the night, it stole her breath. It filled her lungs with fluid.

The hardest part for me was the intrinsic knowledge that she was leaving me.

Selfishly, I wept. Knowing that I wouldn’t receive her texts or her phone calls anymore was crushing. I wouldn’t feel her arms wrap around me and hold me tight. Her fingers would never again tickle my back, while she hummed off key. I wouldn’t hear her witty one liners. How would Christmas taste, without her Norwegian treats? I was (am I ever going to be?) not ready to give that up. If I knew it would’ve saved her I would’ve dug my heels into the dirt and screamed until I got my way and she stayed.

The Doctor’s gave her the choice of pain meds to numb it all, which would essentially put her in a near comatose state until her lungs, and heart, finally gave out or she could have a chest tube that would drain the fluid that had so rapidly built up in her lungs. With the chest tube, she would still “be present”. She chose the latter.

When the Doctor pierced her back, and inserted the small drain – I felt it in me. Her quiet whimpering roared in my eardrums – any indication of pain, no matter how minute, was deafening to me. I wanted to take all of the hurt and carry it with me. I would bear her burden if it meant one peaceful night for her.

After four restless nights, we knew it was time to say goodbye. She was ready to go, but she wasn’t ready to leave all of us. I feel as though she was conflicted right up until the hour before she let go.

I will never forget walking into the room, and seeing her hands - aimlessly reaching out, her wrists rolling in a little dance. Almost like she was trying to hold on.

The last words she spoke to me were “I’m dying”.

The last thing I told her was “I love you.”

She took her last breath at 7:32 a.m. on Sunday, May 3, 2015. Surrounding her were her children, in laws, and my sister and I, two of her Granddaughters. A cocoon of love held her as she closed her eyes for the last time. Like a chrysalis, when we released her, she had wings.

I held my sister and we wept. Our arms entangled in a tight embrace so that the halves of each of our heart that left with her last breath could, even momentarily, become one.  I had walked this path fifteen years prior, and saw our Grandpa take his last breath. I knew how deeply it would hurt. My sister had not experienced the monstrosity and beauty of death firsthand – we broke together.

The restless nights, the quiet creeping around her room so as not to wake her. I wouldn’t take them back.

What I’ll miss hearing the most? “I Love You, Jay Bells”.

She was my Vena Cava, only instead of filling my heart with blood, she pumped it full of love.

I was angry. I’m still angry.

I feel guilty. I told her it was okay to let go. Why did I tell her that, when it was not okay? Why didn’t I take more photos? More videos? Why did I ever leave her side, when what I want so badly is to be back there?

Death is something I have always been intrigued by, it is fascinating to study the ancient funeral rites of passage, to delve deeper into a topic that most people shy away from. I freely and openly discuss the topic. I embrace the right to die with dignity, the reality of the mortal soul. As hard as it is, I saw the shards of beauty that shone through the ugliness that consumed my last memories with her.

She was blessed to be surrounded by love and light in her life, and in her dying days that was no different.

When you bring joy into the life of others, that joy will be returned to you, tenfold.

With the help of some family, we washed and dressed her in a beautiful outfit she would’ve chastised us for “wasting”. We stroked her cheeks, her arms, her hands. Those hands - they held hundreds, maybe thousands of babies in her thirty-seven years as a Maternity nurse. They held her four Children, her fifteen Grandchildren, her Nineteen Great Grandchildren. Her hands - they baked, cleaned, cuddled, and caressed. Her hands held my heart. Her cheeks, soft as silk, dampened with my tears as I lay beside her in bed, hugging her. As the dampness of my tears dried and disappeared, I feared that the memories would too.

All I want right now is to hold her again. Even for a moment longer.

The hospital (bless their kind and caring hearts of humanity and grace) gave us all the time we needed. We took five and a half hours to caress her, to talk to her, to cry. None of us wanted to say goodbye to her.

I don’t know how any of us found the strength to leave her. How does a person leave, knowing that the physical body you have been comforted by your whole life is going to be gone?

It is heartbreaking to say goodbye to someone you love so deeply. I know it was right. I know that she, in the end, was ready. I know that peace enveloped her as she left this Earth. It doesn’t mean I am okay with it.

I am not okay.

I will grieve for some time, and my heart may not ever be stitched back together.

I feel guilt, and I feel peace. I am conflicted.

I didn’t cry at her funeral.

Dorothy Louise (Finnestad) Johnson
September 24, 1935 -May 3, 2015

At Least...

At least
January 17, 2019
This week's blog is written by Hospice volunteer, David Cawley

How to Speak To... No, How to Comfort A Person Who Is Grieving

When the notion of penning a few words came to mind, I thought possibly I would write about events that transpired in my decades employed in the military. Perhaps including the time when a cute young girl with long blond hair was making slashing motions across her neck while pointing to a gipsy lady who was going to be stoned to death with rocks until we intervened. Or the time I was standing outside Pristina 's city hall in Kosovo when a man came up to me describing the incident involving his brother. The man spoke as pointing to the location where his brother was dragged out of his car and killed so that the soldier who murdered him could take the vehicle. As I was grasping the magnitude of this event the man just walks away.

Or the time when I was given roses and then faced rocks for doing my duty for our country. The motivation behind these events and others, I can understand and explain (not that I agree with them). In the same vain I can understand the fragrant words of comfort which to the recipient are rocks striking his very heart; kind words given in hope to lift the beneficiary’s spirits but in actuality place great pressure on their souls. So how do we help our loved ones who are being beaten with the sticks and stones of grief and not use our words to harm them?

"How are you doing?" were the words a compassionate nurse spoke to me just after I was told to call my family home to be with their mother because her death was at hand. My wife of over three decades was clinging to life, our loved-one who has been battling multiple myeloma cancer for over a year. Who was just rushed by ambulance hours earlier to this hospital. A ride the doctors themselves where not sure she would survive. What should my response to this inquiry be? The only reply was to nod my head up and down for I had no words. How could I formulate an answer because I was fighting back my tears because of the situation?

I suggest the inquiry 'how you are doing' is not the correct question at times because it demands the ill prepared recipient to reply with detailed explanations from their very souls. This question isolates the questioner from any attachment or acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation. Unless one has faced this question in grief, these words are asked without grasping the depth of the far-reaching demands of this request. The truth of the previous statement has been confirmed to me as I have tried to explain my reaction to this question to others. Some defend the question and others inquire about my overreaction to these well-meaning words. But, before asking the question, 'how you are doing?' ask yourself how would you feel if you have just faced the same situation? If you who have a clear mind not clouded in grief do not have a detailed reply why demand the one who is suffering to have one? Perhaps the helpful question is, "I do not know what you are feeling but I imagine you are in shock. I am here if you need anything."

The time will come when "how are you doing?' will be the correct question. However, most inquirers will not take time to contemplate a question related to the grieving person's response. The inquisitors are being polite, just waiting to hear some positive report before they add some personal antidote to conversation; no different than a person asking you about your fishing adventure. To which you speak about the pristine lake while gesturing about the size of the lake trout you managed to land. You stop speaking to breathe or waiting for the questioner to seek advice on fishing tackle or some clarification on some other aspect of your adventure because they inquired about it. Most times, though, they start motioning with their arms about the greater fish they caught on their fish exploits.

In the same vain I was asked about the condition of my wife. I responded that she is doing well after the large blood clot was removed which, left untreated, would have taken her life. The person who asked the question then started speaking about her friend who broke two fingers and the awkward situation the poor lady was in. If you ask the question "how are you doing?" be prepared to listen and ask questions tied directly to the person's explanation of their feelings.

Years ago, my wife and I spent hours at a time at Gilbert's Cove on the Atlantic coast. At dusk one day as we were taking in the beautiful vista, a car sprinted down the road only slowing enough to take a picture or two before racing off again. I thought to myself, at least they caught a glimpse though they have no comprehension of what they truly missed in their rush. At least they tried. On one hand, 'at least' are two words issued as a positive description to acknowledge a limited effort in a worthy pursuit. On the other hand, sadly, many caring individuals in pursuit to bring comfort to others mistakenly employ these words 'at least' in the negative convention. 'At least' he came to work today!

My wife lost all of her hair as result of her chemo treatments. We were at the cancer hospital where she was looking at scarfs to keep her head warm and to be a surrogate for her lost hair. At this point two kind ladies spoke to us about the beauty of the head covering. If they would have stayed on this route our time together would been a blessing. Sadly they detoured down the path promoting the great liberation my wife now has because she does not have to waste time doing her hair. 'At least' you do not have to wash, 'at least' you do not have to waste time drying and fussing with your hair each morning. At the time I was taken aback but in hind sight I should have offered to pay to have their heads shaved. No doubt the ladies would have been at least in shock at such an offer.

This introductory phrase 'at least' does make the speaker feel helpful because they believe they are illuminating the picture of grief to new light. However, the grieving individual perceives this phrase in the negative light. See others are worse off than you; 'at least' you have ... Look at the big picture don't be so self-focused! 'At Least' can be the most devastating of all well-meaning expressions that can be pronounced to a grieving person. For words do kill the spirits of the grieving. At least' spend time grasping the demands of your questions before asking your loved ones to respond to them. 'At least' be very tentative when employing the words 'at least' if you care and want to know how the grieving individual is doing.

The unseen burden of grief is perched precariously on grieving person's soul. As one approach, observe if the person is making slashing motions to indicate that rocks of grief are inflicting pain. Evaluate your words because you want to levitate the burden not add to them. Perhaps the best words are the ones not spoken until you hold the persons hand in silence. As a picture is said to be worth a thousand words so your presence is worth more but can be weakened with just one.

David Cawley

Shards of Sugar

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January 4, 2019
This week's blog is written by Hospice Program Coordinator, Bill Harder

Sometimes, on a whim, I sweeten my coffee with a teaspoon of sugar. Doing so reminds me of days gone by when sugar cubes where once more common; when as a child at a community supper I might sneak a cube or two behind my mom's watchful eyes. hidden in my mouth, the sweet lump would begin to crumble at the edges, and then, when its structural integrity had become jeopardized, would of a sudden collapse (which, by the way, gives explanation for several of my dental fillings).

A remembrance of sugar cubes buoyed its way to the surface of my re-membering this week. I was speaking at the Bashaw United Church on the theme of the "soul of sorrowing." They had a little box of the once ubiquitous lumps. Conversation with Pastor Robin (a man whose Love and Light fill the room) caused this image to be set ablaze: sorrow is very much like a sugar cube in coffee.

We do not "get over" grief. We do no "leave it behind and move on." Rather, like sugar in coffee, sorrow becomes incorporated into every part of our being. Once the cube is stirred it dissolves entirely, and it would be, on a practical level, impossible to separate it from the hot drink. Quite simply, the coffee is now changed, imbued with the essence of sugar.

Sorrow changes us - that is its intent, its nature. On the day of our loss sorrow is gently (and sometimes not so gently) dropped into the liquid of our being. Time, Love, re-membering, re-collecting, these stir sorrow, dissolving it into us - inseparably, beautifully, completely.

I have sipped, gulped even, at the cup of sorrow. It is rarely sweet; here the metaphor breaks down. It is, though, a flavor and aroma which once consumed is forever infused in my soul.

May Love stir gently the cup of your sorrowing.
Something to ponder...

Remembering My Beloved

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March 19, 2018
This week's blog is a gift from Hospice Volunteer Coordinator, Joy LeBlanc:

The other day my husband and I were talking about our funerals.

We both believe that funerals really are a ritual that allow people to grieve, laugh and remember the person who has died. Funerals help the living come to terms with living a life that has a deep hurt in it.

So, the discussion was not about what I want at my funeral but what would he like to do to help him grieve when I do die (if I die first). His first response was to have a spiritual send-off for me that would include the many different aspects of our spiritual journey together.

He would want food so he can "break bread" with his friends. Since he has trouble hearing he would want to have a special chair to sit in a quiet corner so he could hear when people came to visit with him and tell him why they loved me too. He would want to hear my name said over and over again.

He would want a special table with all of our valentine cards that we have written to each other over the years on display so that he could share our love for each other in this concrete way (I wasn't too sure about this but then I had to remember this was his time and that we had agreed that whatever would help him grieve was okay).

This was our beginning discussion. He might die first so now it is my turn to decide how I will grieve for him but that is another story. I'm looking forward to the discussion as both of us felt peaceful preparing for another ritual in our life together.

Missing Really Well

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March 12, 2018
This week's Hospice Blog is a gift from Hospice board member, Treva Olson.

Treva writes:
My mother died 4 years ago; she was 96. I was feeling quite bereft one day, longing to have a conversation with her, when I opened a wee book by an Ojibway wisdom holder.  In his writing he often has conversations with "old woman" and "old man," meaning elders.

The moment I read this I felt deep gratitude and grace. We live our lives in moments; precious moments. Each moment lived fully is  one that is filled with wonder and joy. My mom now lives in my full presence.

Wagamese's book was given to me by a family just three days before my dad's memorial a year ago. Out of it came the eulogy I spoke for him; Richard's words are very heartfull.

Living Well

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March 1, 2018
Our inaugural blog is written by Hospice Program Coordinator, Bill Harder.

Bill writes:
A palliative diagnosis means that our warranty is getting thin - that whatever ails us may very well be the cause of our demise. Our final breath could be imminent, or it might be months or years down the road, depending upon the nature of the illness. It sounds a bit grim. Until you consider that humanity has a 100% mortality rate.  In that sense, being alive could be considered palliative, for life will eventually wind down for all of us, and we'll give this mortal rental back.

In the meantime, poor warranty or not, most of us want to experience life richly, at every stage, every age, and in the face of every challenge. We seek meaningful connection to family and friends; we look for ways to share our gifts; we want to Love and be Loved.

Hospice endeavors to increase the quality of life for  those whose days are counting down due to an incurable illness. Whether someone has seven days or seven hundred - living well and fully is not out of reach; they just need a little support to make it happen.

We invite your thoughts on how you, or a loved-one, have lived well in the face of challenging physical limits.

I leave the last word to author, Simone Elkeles:
“If there's one thing I learned,
it's that nobody is here forever.
You have to live for the moment,
each and every day,
the here, the now.”
(Simone Elkeles, Perfect Chemistry)