When I wore my hospice name tag in public . . .
This happened a few years ago, before I retired . . .
The clerk behind the counter in the fancy kitchen and cooking store looked forty-something. Smiling, she asked me a question echoed multiple times a day: “How can I help you?”
Then she glanced at the nametag on my shirt and her friendly salesperson grin faded. Soon, she shared about five hours that had changed her life.
But first I answered, letting her know I wanted to pick up a special-ordered knife and had also found other on-sale kitchen-y items. Work had just ended and I was crossing errands off a to-do list. When exiting my car, I noticed my nametag remained attached to my shirt.
Wearing my nametag in public is always a risk.
A good risk.
A bad risk.
I rarely make accurate guesses about ages, so the clerk may have been much younger (or older) than forty. Regardless of her accumulated years, she told me about an event from over two decades ago. Her mother had died. While listening to her story, inspired by that glance at my nametag, I knew that whatever her age, her mother died when they were both far too young.
“Mom was so sick and we didn’t know what to do. We contacted you guys at hospice and she was able to get to your place late at night.”
She said her mother had lived in the mountains, likely an hour’s drive from where my hospice’s inpatient facility is located on a suburban street. Continuing, she explained her siblings had done as much as possible to make their mother comfortable, but the pain kept increasing. They wanted her to have a peaceful death and feared that it would not—or could not—happen.
The family was told, a few nights after Christmas, in the darkest season, that a bed was available.
Her mother made it the inpatient hospice home.
Social workers and chaplains were present, supporting the family.
Her mother died five hours later, before the next sunrise. The family had surrounded her bed. They said their goodbyes. They held her hand. They prayed together. They got to see their beloved mother shift from a face contorted in pain to an expression of peacefulness.
“I will never forget that night,” the clerk said. “Never.”
When the clerk’s smile faded, after glimpsing the nametag on my shirt and she said, “Your hospice took care of my mother,” I quickly guessed that we’d served her Mom for maybe a week. While hospices have many patients for months, about 30% of all patients will be in hospice for seven days or less. Sometimes families can wait too long to decide on hospice. Sometimes everything seems to abruptly fall apart, and a loved one eating and walking and making future plans on one day becomes bedbound the next.
But what she shared was all about a literal handful of hours.
Sometimes, that too is what happens.
As we leaned toward each other across the counter, as a few customers roamed the store, as we whispered words and her eyes misted with tears, I was glad hospice had given her family one of their greatest gifts.
This had happened more than twenty years ago, and “only” for five hours.
And yet here she was, telling me of one of the most intimate, essential moments in her life.
It doesn’t always happen like this. This is the burden my nametag carries.
Not every death is “easy” or “good.” I’ve worn my nametag while being told about situations where anger and frustration were more dominant than any variation of serenity.
Not every death will prompt a conversation in a fancy kitchen store (or anywhere else for that matter). I am quite sure, with my hospice nametag securely attached over my heart, that some have avoided me. They have glared at me from a safe distance. They have silently cursed me.
Not every death within hospice occurs as families hope and pray that it will. Hospice is blamed for giving too many drugs or not enough. Of “forcing” a family to use medical equipment (like a hospital bed) or not being forcible enough to convince a family that it was time for different equipment. Death drags out the worst in us, with the unsettling feelings of shame and guilt and regret and anger appearing quicker than flies on garbage. Sometimes, since hospice staff aren’t perfect, mistakes are made. With or without mistakes, the season of dying staggers everyone.
My nametag witnessed myriad told and untold anguished stories.
And some blessed ones.
Decades ago—which can feel like yesterday—a clerk’s mother died. Over a five hour stretch of time, in the blink of an eye, everything changed for a family.
I was humbled to receive the gift of her story.
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash
My book, A Companion for the Hospice Journey, is available at Amazon.