Friday, January 20, 2017
by Lizzy Miles
A couple of years ago I wrote a Pallimed article called, "We Don't Know Death: 7 Assumptions We Make about the Dying." Having knowledge of our assumptions is a first step, but what do we do with that knowledge? Since I wrote that article, I have further contemplated the “so what” factor of the assumptions to develop suggested interventions.
This article is the seventh in a series of articles where I take each assumption from the original article and explore the concept in greater depth to include implications and possible interventions. In my last article, I wrote about the assumption that hospice patients will reveal the secrets to the universe.
Here is our next assumption: You should tell your loved one, “It’s okay to let go.”
The idea that a dying person is waiting for permission from their loved ones permeates many articles about the final days of dying. There is some truth to the idea that some patients may linger because they worry about the ones they are leaving behind. However, this concern about the bereaved is only one of many possible reasons that patients do not die when we think they should.
Consider this. How do you know it is okay to go? Have you died before? Do you know what it feels like? No, you don’t--none of us do. Dying is scary stuff, even for patients who have a strong belief in the afterlife or heaven.
Several years ago I had a patient, “Betty,” who told me that she was not afraid to die because she had a vision of her deceased husband and he told her everything was going to be okay. Then one day I was called to the house because she was “dying.” The chaplain, an aide, a few family members and I stood around the bed. The chaplain began to play music and the patient yelled out, “NO” several times. The patient continued to be in distress until we stopped the music and everyone left the room. She calmed down immediately. In hindsight we realized we had put pressure on her to die before she was ready. She died a few days later in the early hours of the morning with her favorite aide by her bedside.
Intervention: Provide education to the family of what it might feel like to be the patient, and how dying might be scary to contemplate.
When my aunt was dying, we had the bedside moment with all the family members praying and then my cousin stopped and said she was going to run an errand. I thought she was having a tough time and had to step away from the situation. That wasn’t the case. She told me later that at the time we were praying, she heard her mom’s voice in her head, saying, “I don’t know what you’re all doing, but I’m not going anywhere right now.”
Intervention: Suggest to the family that they could also tell the patient that it’s okay for them to take their time if they aren’t ready.
On more than one occasion I have had friends and family question why a patient hadn’t died when they had told them it was okay to let go. The first thing I do is normalize their feelings of uncertainty and the difficulty of not knowing when. Often in these situations I explain the phenomenon of timing. I tell family members that dying is like planning a dinner party. There are a lot of components that need to happen for someone to be ready to go. I tell them sometimes a patient waits for someone to arrive and sometimes a patient waits for someone to leave. I instruct the family to not worry too much about the right conditions because they are difficult to anticipate and rarely what we expect. I tell the families that it will all make sense ‘afterwards’.
I had one woman who was questioning me on the length of time it took for her husband to die and I gave her a short example of another situation in which the patient was waiting for his spouse’s sister to arrive. Oddly enough, that was exactly what happened again. These patients weren’t waiting to see someone for themselves, they were waiting for someone to arrive who would be a source of support for the ones left behind.
Intervention: When providing education about talking to patient, normalize the caregiver’s feelings. Use non-specific anecdotes in brief if they are helpful to illustrate the situation.
One of the more challenging aspects of bedside hospice work is for staff to leave their own expectations and ideals at the door. The best advice I was given as a new social worker was to remember the acronym “NATO” which means Not Attached to Outcome. While we can give suggestions to families and friends on how to talk to or be with their loved one, we have to remember to stay neutral if they do not follow our guidance.
There are times where we, as staff, express our concern about patient situations behind the scenes. Have you heard a coworker express concern or thought to yourself:
There are “too many” people in the room.
Why aren’t they talking to the patient?
Why would they talk about those topics in front of the patient?
How could they talk that way in front of the patient?
Why isn’t there anyone at the bedside?
Why won’t the caregiver tell the patient it is okay to “let go”?
Why won’t they leave the patient’s bedside, even if for just a minute?
Caregiver actions at the bedside can sometimes confound and unsettle us because of our own ideas of a “good death.” However it is not up to us to define. We may actually be the ones who have to “let go” of the idea that we know what’s best for our patients.
Lizzy Miles, MA, MSW, LSW is a hospice social worker in Columbus, Ohio and author of a book of happy hospice stories: Somewhere In Between: The Hokey Pokey, Chocolate Cake and the Shared Death Experience. Lizzy is best known for bringing the Death Cafe concept to the United States. She currently has a Kickstarter campaign featuring quotes from hospice patients in response to her quest for Secrets to the Universe. You can find her on Twitter @LizzyMiles_MSW.
Note: Pallimed welcomes your ideas for other assumptions we've missed. If you're interested in writing an article about assumptions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org