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Memories of Christmas in Palliative Care

As I write this, I look around and see that the Christmas season is in full swing. Christmas has exploded everywhere. Everywhere you look Christmas decorations are on display and all of the shops are competing for your Christmas dollars. The media is working overtime trying to convince you of all the things that you just can’t live without this year.The perfect gift for the perfect Christmas is achievable, according to all the retail outlets. That’s the message that bombards us from everywhere for so many weeks. It’s no wonder that Christmas can be so overwhelming and stressful.

So, when I start to feel anxious, I step back into time and remember my years working in Palliative Care. I learned many life lessons when I spent time with patients that knew that their time was limited. Death puts things into perspective when you know your time is slipping away like sand in an hourglass. Priorities change, and the urgency to achieve your goals is all that matters.Every second is precious, every day is a gift. It’s inevitable that a special bond is formed between a person on the last miles of their journey and the person who chooses to walk with them until the end of that path.

Early into my clinical training, some fellow PSW students nicknamed me Morticia when I decided to work in Palliative Care. Death scares a lot of people; including some people who work in healthcare. People who work in healthcare often have a dark sense of humour as a means of getting through some hard situations. It’s never meant to be disrespectful or rude.It’s never in the presence of patients or their family. What it really comes down to is a defense mechanism. I think it’s a way of coping when you have to deal with uncomfortable situations.

Although we are trained to maintain a professional distance, that’s really easier said than done. There are some people that come into our lives that just leave a lasting impression. You can’t help but to admire a person who maintains grace and their sense of humour in spite of their situation. I spent many Christmases with other families, while on duty. I feel honoured to have walked the last miles of a person’s journey with them. I was welcomed like a family member into the homes and lives of my patients and their families.

Sickness and death never take a vacation, so if you work in healthcare you work a lot of holidays. As a single mother for many years I usually chose to work the afternoon shift on Christmas Eve because my children were spending time with their father. I had no idea what it would be like to be with people who were basically strangers in my life,on Christmas Eve. We were strangers that had been brought together because a beloved family member had been diagnosed as terminal. I had a job to do, but under the circumstances the anxiety of wondering how I could possibly fit into another families celebration without feeling like an outsider was initially terrifying. However, I couldn’t have prepared myself for the many unexpected magical evenings I was so thoughtfully included in over the years with many different families.

At one point in my career as a PSW, I worked for a Private Agency that provided additional care to families that could afford to pay for extra care that was not covered by the government. Therefore, many of these families were very wealthy people who lived in big beautiful houses and hosted some really fancy functions. There was one family in particular that stands out in my mind because of how loving and wonderful they were to everyone. They never put on airs or treated anyone like second-class citizens. They treated all of the staff with kindness and respect. They were the first family I spent Christmas Eve with while I was with that agency. They were a very prominent family with valuable ties to the community. The matriarch of the family was my patient and she lived in a large, luxurious home on a large estate. She was a real proper lady who was used to the finer things in life. We spent months together looking at family photo albums and watching classic Old Hollywood movies. I served her tea in Royal Daulton teacups that were so fine and delicate that I was terrified of breaking them every time I touched them. She often asked me to read her favourite poetry to her. Time spent with her was pleasant and reminded me of being with my great Aunt Mary, who was also a very dignified and sophisticated lady.

I was surprised and delighted when I was asked to sit with my patient at the family table on Christmas Eve. I was fully prepared to eat my dinner later as is proper protocol when you work in someone’s home. I was completely aware that I was there to do a job and that this wasn’t a social event for me. But they insisted that I sit beside “mother” and partake of the feast they were about to serve. The entire room, including the table was all decked out like something you would see in a Martha Stewart magazine. When they said a prayer before the meal, they included me and my kids when they asked for a blessing and protection over the family. After dinner, we all moved into the family room with the roaring fire and Christmas carols playing softly in the background. It was at this time that they decided to exchange Christmas gifts and it was my job to help my lady with opening her gifts. I can’t begin to express my shock when they handed me 3 big bags with gifts for me and my children. I didn’t even know that they knew I had children, as I never discussed my personal life with my patients. But, these thoughtful, generous people had called the agency and collected the information needed to give gifts to all of the staff that had been taking care of the family matriarch. To say I was touched by their genuine thoughtfulness would be an underestimation. It wasn’t about the gifts though. It’s the fact that this family went above and beyond to make the best of a potentially awkward situation. I was deeply touched by their exceptional kindness and hospitality. I was shocked at how genuinely loving and caring they were to everyone. The only time I was uncomfortable was with my own emotions. I had a really hard time holding back tears that whole shift because they were making it really hard to remain objective. The kindness of strangers has always surprised and touched me in a special way. I cried all the way home thinking about how lucky I was to spend Christmas Eve with such thoughtful people, people who were going through one of the hardest times in their life. And yet, instead of being bitter they chose to make the very best of the situation. For everyone! I decided right then and there that I would never be depressed or anxious about Christmas ever again. I’d find a way to make it special and different every year. I would do whatever made me and my children happy, even if it wasn’t considered traditional.

We spent the next couple of weeks doing whatever she wanted whenever I was scheduled to go in and take care of her. I think she knew her time was coming to an end because after Christmas I sensed an urgency in her that hadn’t been there before. She walked through her house looking at all of the objects she had acquired and told me remarkable stories of how they had come into her posession. She’d tell me tales from long ago that were fascinating to listen to. She talked about days gone by. We’d step back in time when we spent time in her closet that was as big as my bedroom. She’d proudly show me her sparkly evening gowns, long silk gloves, Joan Crawford style shoes, and at least a hundred purses. She’d tell me stories of being a debutante and the yearly summer family trips to the cottage in Cape Cod. She had an antique car in the garage that she refused to part with because it had been her husband’s favourite car. She’d show me pictures from when she was young, and a sparkle would light up her eyes. She was beautiful when she was young, and she knew it. She really enjoyed telling stories about her youth about all. A twinkle appeared in her eyes when she talked about the boys who asked her to dance and the many hearts she broke along the way. But when she talked about her husband, you knew she was talking about her one true love. She spoke of him with reverence and admiration. She was proud of his many accomplishments and she was honoured to be his wife and the mother of his children. She said she had no regrets because she had lived a very full, meaningful life. Not long after this visit she took to her bed and was diagnosed with pneumonia. She slept a lot from then on, but I still read her poetry out loud and quietly played classical music on the radio in the background. Hearing is the last thing to go when someone is dying so it’s really important to keep the room as pleasant as possible.

Sadly, she died the day after my last shift with her. I went to the funeral and the family invited all the staff to a luncheon in her honour. We were told that she had died in her sleep, in her nice comfortable bed. That made me happy for her, knowing that she hadn’t suffered at all.

Being with “my lady” and her family was an honour, and I will never forget their extraordinary kindness that one Christmas Eve we shared together.

2 thoughts on “Memories of Christmas in Palliative Care

  1. Marilyn..
    Not sure why but i decided to go on linked in tonight around 6pm.I spotted your beautiful picture, and i was intrigued that you had written a story.. you should really get into writing because as I read the story it was pulling me in keeping me interested for then next sentence.. its a lovely true story. The thing that is ironic is that No matter how much money you have it does not buy you more time on this earth, or any more friends or more love. I LOVED your story it is well written and very much from the heart. Thanks for sharing your heart to the world.
    Love you
    Jeannie

    1. Thank you for all of the lovely compliments. Writing is my passion, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please feel free to share it.

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