My aunt texted to say that my stepfather was very active the other day.
That was a relief to hear, I told her. He had been very down and low energy due to a recent cancer diagnosis.
I was imagining him getting out of his regular seat, going to the kitchen for his own drinks and snacks, laughing as he conversed with others.
She called me to clarify: This was “active” as in the stage of dying.
She told me there are identified stages of dying. She described them to me, and since then I looked it up with some other sources including some hospice sites, because to be honest I was a little overwhelmed when she first talked about it. Different hospices count it out in different steps, but by and large, they are this:
First, the person eats and drinks much less than normal, a time from a few days to several weeks.
Next, the person starts to look different. They are less responsive to their surroundings and to other people. They get to the point where they can barely speak or move at all. This is usually in the last days of life.
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In the final stage, a person is disoriented and restless, with significant changes in breathing and heartbeat. On the final day, skin on knees, feet and hand may turn a mottled bluish-purple, due to decreased blood circulation.
I timed my visit to arrive slightly after my stepfather had been settled into a hospice facility.
The family were with him during the days. A neighbor who had become a friend came for a visit and cried several times. That was especially touching, with him being a man, and the only person outside the family.
I spent the night with him, in his room, the final vigil. I could not sleep until finally sleep overtook me, and before I knew it someone had arrived with my breakfast.
Yes, those were sad days. But they were as they should have been. He was never alone. His daughter (or as close as he has to one) never left his side, as it should be.
He waited for the family to gather before he drew his last breath. The women of the family were holding his hands and arms and touching him and murmuring words of love and of permission to pass on to where he needs to be.
Though the room was filled with tears and immense sorrow, that was not the tragedy.
In that hall of 10 rooms, his was the only room full of grieving supporters ushering him with love through the transition.
At almost every other room, you could see the foot-ends of beds. The legs on the beds told you someone was there. One room had the television on. One room had a hunch-backed, frail old man sitting in a chair beside the bed.
The rest of the rooms, where only the blanket-clad legs of the individuals on the beds were visible, were quiet.
This is life’s final journey, with no one to hold their hands. No one to murmur words of love and assurance.
I have heard of hospice volunteers. They probably came to that facility when I was in my family’s room, not able to see them. But when I was in the halls, the rooms were bare, except for the dying.
The thought of people lying on those strange beds, waiting to die, alone …
The stages of death are easy to understand. I saw it with my mother when she was under hospice care, and then I saw it with my stepfather when he was under hospice care, and even sitting with my best friend at her father’s side. So, when once I would have been afraid to be around death, that fear is gone.
It is a natural process, each one different in its own way, but it is the most guaranteed part of life of anything a person will experience.
People in hospice care are away from our eyes. We don’t tend to know or think about them. But they are there.
So are hospice volunteers. Thank God for them. What a beautiful and necessary role they play – to offer comfort and companionship at the very end.
It prompted me to look into what hospices are in this area. There are a handful; here are just two of them.
Mountain Valley Hospice & Palliative Care serves our area. It offers a free comprehensive training program each month that includes understanding hospice, symptom management, communication and grief, its website states. If you would like to learn about volunteering with them, contact Jan Matthews at 336-583-2893 or [email protected].
Commonwealth Hospice of Martinsville is through Sovah Health. Its office is in the Patrick Henry Mall, and its phone number is 276-666-7469.
Death is a natural process, and a profound one. The person going through it may be terribly afraid of it – if they are even conscious — but a volunteer sitting at his or her side need not be.
Of the sad sights I have seen in my life, now the saddest is a glimpse of a stranger’s legs on a bed in a quiet and otherwise empty hospice room.