Sometimes it takes more than a team at the end of life
By Barbara Hoepp, LCSW
For the past few weeks, I have been meeting new patients who are younger than me and more than a generation younger than the folks I normally work with. This creates a completely different dynamic when the patient’s children are 14 or 16 rather than 65 or 70.
Teenagers don’t understand why their Dad or Mom has been ravaged by a disease, often cancer, and they don’t accept that a life they need to help them stay on course could be extinguished within a few days. With older patients we often begin service far enough in advance to provide real assistance if anyone is having trouble letting go. With a young patient, often treatment continues until the very last minute and then the Hospice team has days or perhaps only hours to help an exhausted family get to a point of acceptance, or at least understanding.
Last Friday I had four visits scheduled with patients younger than me. Each was at different stages of decline and surrounded by varying levels of support. It was hard to accept when the wife of my youngest patient declined my visit. I was worried about the tears that leaked from her eyes during the entire first visit and the fact that I had not met two of her three children. In retrospect, I had to remember that if she had needed the visit she would have said yes. However, she barely knew the team, had little time to grasp the meaning of Hospice, and was graced with a large family and an excellent support system. She knew who had her back and they were with her throughout. Her husband passed on Saturday and on Sunday the family went to her son’s game because they knew that Dad would want it.
For this family, my role as Hospice Social Worker has now been transferred to our Bereavement Coordinator and her team of volunteers. This young widow might accept their calls or she might stick with the family and friends who have been with her throughout her husband’s illness and dying process. The charm is that the service is available for 13 months if she decides that she needs it.
The Hospice team can’t have major impact with every family that we meet—because there isn’t always time—but knowing that we are there if they need us is sometimes enough. Every member of our team was careful to give a full report on the children in this family, and I did give my card to the oldest child so a connection has been made. As well as helping our families to let go, we are also conscious of the need to let go ourselves and trust that the next person is capable of picking up where we left off.