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In my 20 years as a chaplain and as vice president of development at Hosparus, there are two important lessons I’ve learned.
Back in the early 1990’s I was in a training session for hospice workers where I learned my first vital lesson. Each of us was given 16 index cards and asked to write on each the names of people, abilities, things and values we hold dear. In the course of our imagined life-limiting illness, we had to surrender cards or somewhat abruptly have them taken from us.
At the end I had two cards: One read “Integrity” and the other read “My Wife and Family.” How could I choose between these two? Such a choice was unfair and impossible. My initial thought was that I would give up my integrity, because I love my wife and family and would want their comfort at my death. But then, I would realize that dying without integrity might be worse. I drifted back and forth, not wanting to choose. In the end, I uneasily kept the integrity card because I reasoned that if I lost my wife and family, integrity would still be possible; if I lost my integrity, my life would be without value.
The second lesson is about grief because almost every day since I’ve been working in hospice care, I deal with grief.
I hear crying, moaning or wailing: A young woman has lost her child; an elderly widower is holding his wife’s belongings; a daughter sobs at the loss of her dad.
Years ago I would have rushed to comfort these people. Uncomfortable myself with their grief, I’d want to ease their sadness with my cheer and consolation. I would hug the young woman and tell her to “Try to get pregnant again” or “Keep an eye on her other children.” I would reassure the widower, telling him, “Your wife had a long life.”
It wasn’t until I had stayed with many dying patients and, finally, with my dying father, that I allowed myself to grieve – for my Dad, for those lost patients, for all their loved ones who, as I once did, held back their tears. Now, years later, I know that it is both necessary and human for us to wallow, each in our own way, in grief.
I no longer comfort others with false cheer. I don’t encourage anyone to move on, to replace, to remarry, or put the photos or the memories away. Grief must be given its time.
I believe that both the caregivers and the cared-for should be free to scream and cry and fall to the floor – if not actually, then at least in the heart. I believe that grief, fully expressed, will change over time into something, less overpowering, even granting us a new understanding, a kind of double vision that comprehends both the beauty and fragility of life at the same time.
When I grieve, when I stand by others as they grieve, even in the midst of seemingly unbearable sorrow, grief becomes a way to honor life – a way to cling to every fleeting, precious moment of joy.
The views expressed in this column are those of the writer. Robert J. “Bob” Mueller is vice president of development for Hosparus.