Hospice made the goodbye less bitter, more sweet

My grandmother vowed to live forever. No, really, she said as much in a notarized letter to the family in 2008: “I, Alice M. Perlmutter, going to live forever…”

She was strong-willed, resilient and feisty so you could almost believe her. But her demise ultimately came on Aug. 25, just six weeks after her 101st birthday. While it wasn’t a complete surprise given her age, there’s no way to prepare for a loved one’s final days, hours, minutes.

After my grandmother was admitted to a hospital in Philadelphia for congestive heart failure, we were told she had hours to days to live. The family made the decision that in-patient hospice care was the best course of action.

Then came the waiting. How do you pass the time when you know death is inevitable, that it’s coming in a matter of days, maybe hours?

The hospice staff assigned to us were instrumental in helping us navigate that process, in making the passing of time more bearable.

In the days leading to her death, my grandmother, known for being outspoken, didn’t talk or open her eyes. While at times it felt as if she was no longer with us, hospice staff advised us, in those final moments of her life, to speak to her as we normally would, even if she couldn’t respond.

We wanted her to die comfortably and without pain, and they helped ensure that happened. They treated her with dignity throughout, greeting her by her first name when they entered the room, and explaining to her what they were about to do – give her morphine, take her blood pressure – even if she wasn’t aware of their presence.

A family of foodies, my grandmother no exception, we found it difficult to understand that she didn’t want, nor need, anything to eat or drink. Hospice staff explained that was a natural part of the dying process, that when a person is transitioning, as they call it, the body no longer needs nutrients.

When her death was imminent, they helped us navigate saying goodbye, suggesting we each take time individually to be with her privately.

I won’t forget the kindness a hospice nurse, who was not assigned to my grandmother, offered my sister and me, as we walked down the hallway after kissing our grandmother goodbye, tears streaming down our faces.

We explained to her that we weren’t expecting to be so upset. Given her age, we knew this was coming sooner rather than later. She embraced us and said even when someone is expected to die, it’s never an easy process. She could’ve passed us by, but she took those minutes to console us.

There are many sad and tragic stories of death, but this was not one of them. This was a life well lived running its course. But it was far from an easy experience, and hospice staff helped ease the pain.

Julia Bergman is a Day staff writer. Her reporting focuses on military affairs.

 

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