During the first two interviews I had with Charlene, she cried straight through them. After fighting cancer for more than 21 years, it seemed this time the disease had finally won. Estranged from two ex-husbands and three distant sons, the only man still in her life was a sometimes father she called “Daddy” who made occasional appearances.
Charlene was overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. Setting appointments to visit her was almost impossible because she didn’t know how to answer her new smartphone. You’d have to leave a message and she’d call you back later. She had just moved into a tiny apartment, all on one level, so she could take care of herself for as long as possible. But all of the new technology was beyond her. She had a TV and cable but couldn’t work the remote or understand how to set the ROKU up to watch her favorite shows.
She was a mess.
The cancer and its attending pain were bad enough but the real tormentor in Charlene’s life was the huge elephant of fear that had camped out in her apartment – the fear of becoming a burden to others. I call this elephant the great American mortal sin. It is culturally the one unforgivable crime: being needy.
On my third visit, I’d hoped I’d engendered enough trust with Charlene to poke at this painful pachyderm. After another 20 minutes of listening to her tearfully sad story about disappointment and desertion, she began to share how overwhelming even the simplest of tasks were, like setting up her phone and the TV remote control. It was just all too much.
I stopped her short. “Charlene, you’re dying. I doubt where you’re going it’ll be important to know how to set up electronic gadgets. Why waste what little time you have left trying to figure these things out? You’re dying and you’re in pain and you’re all alone. You’re needy and you’ll never have these cards to play again. Look – we have hospice volunteers who would love to come and help you set these electronic devices up, and they already know how to do it. Let’em come and do it for you.” She stopped crying and looked at me in amazement.
“Now when they come,” I continued, “look real pitiful and cough a little bit. Really look like you’re dying. It’ll make ’em feel good. They’ll go home and tell their families ‘I was able to help out a dying lady today.’ They’ll feel like a million bucks and you’ll be able to answer your phone and watch your TV shows – everybody wins.”
Charlene couldn’t help herself, she just burst into laughter. It was the first time I’d seen her relax and smile. We spent the rest of our time talking about how painful it is when end-of-life loss of meaning collides with the reality of becoming a burden to others. And we explored ways Charlene could re-frame these feelings at this stage of her life in her situation.
I don’t know that we really resolved anything but Charlene looked better and was breathing a little easier just by talking about it all out in the open. After all, it can be so exhausting trying to hide from and not talk about the great big elephant in the room.
Fred Grewe is a Board Certified Chaplain (Association of Professional Chaplains) with a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Care from the Aquinas School of theology in St. Louis and an ordained Congregationalist minister working for Providence Hospice in Medford, Oregon. His interest in working with the dying began in the early 1990′s with the death of his best friend who succumbed to AIDS. Fred is currently working on a doctorate at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA on end-of-life care. Fred’s book, “What the Dying Have Taught Me about Living” has recently been published by the Pilgrim Press / Open Waters Publishing and is available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/What-Dying-Taught-about-Living/dp/0829820035/ref=la_B00LQ82OI6_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410722593&sr=1-1 .