"There is nothing more we can do medically." The dull thud of these words landed like bricks on Allesandra's ears. How could the doctor be talking about the end of her husband, Val's, life? She didn't feel ready for this. It all seemed to be happening much too quickly.
Throughout their 28 years of marriage, Val had been Allesandra's rock and given her the strength and courage to face any challenge that came their way. And this occasion was no different. When they received this life-changing news, Val reassured Allesandra, "We knew this day was coming. Let's make the most of every moment we have."
I had the honor of being with Val and Allesandra through the end of Val's life. I never ceased to be impressed by the openness with which they faced each day. Their decision to begin home hospice care signified their choice to forgo curative measures and focus on comfort care and pain control. The end of chemotherapy treatments and the grueling weekly trips to the hospital were replaced by hours spent enjoying their time at home, taking walks, having intimate conversations, and reminiscing about their life together.
When I asked him how he was keeping his spirits up, Val replied, "Facing death has given us the gift of approaching the end of my life with open eyes. We have discussed everything else in our lives together; we don't want to miss out on this one."
And that is just how it unfolded. Val was able to die at home surrounded by those who were closest to him in life. Before he got too weak, he made a point of saying goodbye to friends and family and telling each one what their relationship had meant to him. "He had a lot of sweet goodbyes," Allesandra recalls amidst her tears.
In the six months since Val's death, Allesandra has gone through a roller coaster of emotions. The pain and sadness of missing Val are overwhelming. And at the same time, during this season of Thanksgiving, Allesandra expresses gratitude for the profound experience they shared. "Given that Val was going to die, I am grateful that we were prepared. The fact that I was with him as he exhaled his last breath was the right thing for us. I hope he felt me there. I think he did."
November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, a good time to think and talk about end of life and death. Television programs such as PBS' 2010 special Facing Death and Showtime's current six-part documentary Time of Death provide good opportunities for you to open a conversation about this often taboo subject.
In my years of working with grieving clients, I have all too frequently heard grievers lament "Why didn't we ever talk about death when she was alive?" "I wish we had been able to say goodbye." On the other hand, seldom have I heard regrets from people who did have the conversation. So my advice to you is: Be brave, talk to your dear ones about death and what treatment you would want at the end of your life. Tell them how much you appreciate them, what you will always be grateful for, what you learned from them, what you will treasure about them. Don't save those sentiments for their eulogy. You might be very thankful someday.
Please note: Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.
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