“There is a moral task of caring for someone, and that involves being there, being with that person and being committed. When there is nothing that can be done, we have to be able to say, ‘Look, I’m with you in this experience… right through to the end of it.’ ”
– Dr. Kleinman, Harvard Medical School
Where I work, there is a 24 hour companionship system in place when death is imminent for someone we support. People sign up for times during the day and night to stay with the person so they are not alone during their final days. I am on this list and recently received a call to serve. It turned out to be a person I have known for years and had shared many memorable times.
During the time I shared with her, a flood of emotions surfaced for the many support staff that had been such a vital part of her life.
Throughout the time I was in the room, staff filtered in and out to see how she was doing. Many came by to say their final goodbyes and I witnessed the love, compassion and respect they had for her, not only by the way they treated her, but through their body language.
Even though support staff are technically not family, there is a sense of family; a bond like no other. The person’s death can be particularly difficult for staff if it was someone they cared for and bonded with for a long period of time.
As staff would come and go from the room they would say to me, “Thank you for being here”, “I couldn’t have done what you are doing” and “I wish I was the one who could stay with her.” And then there were staff who were silent and I wondered what was going through their minds.
As a former direct support staff my sensitivities to the staff and their reactions intensified.
At one point I even found myself feeling guilty that I was the one there with the dying person during this emotionally charged time. I know firsthand what it is like to have cared for someone, bonded, become like family and then not be the person to spend the last hours with them.
This time can become an emotional roller coaster for staff as they balance job performances and the feelings of grief and loss they are feeling for someone who came into their life as part of their job, and is now dying. I watched staff that day, after having only minutes to say goodbye, leave the room and return to work, many in close proximity to the very room of the person who was dying.
My inspiration for writing this blog came from the direct support staff I saw on this day.
What I saw was dedication, commitment, love and caring for someone they supported as they were dying. On the other hand, I wondered, who was supporting them during this difficult time?
I would love to hear from anyone who has had a similar experience.
A special thank you to Janet Nowak, Bethesda Lutheran Communities Communications Director, for her input and insight for this blog.