by Rebecca Gagne-Henderson PhD, APRN, ACHPN
This Sunday is Easter. There is no better time to tell this story. It is a story of a patient our team cared for when I was director of a hospice. Easter is an appropriate time as this is the story of a young woman’s resurrection experience. This experience occurs during her stay on hospice before her untimely death.
Her experience is an illustration of Remoralization reached on her path to grace and redemption. I know all who read this blog are not Christian, Jewish, Muslim or even believers. Whatever one’s beliefs, this was “Jackie’s” experience. It moved everyone privileged enough to bear witness to her reformation. I share this story as it relates to my previous blog regarding Demoralization and Remoralization in the context of assisted death.
Jackie was a 22-year-old, Mexican American woman. She was a gang member, as was her boyfriend. Jackie and her two younger siblings had lived their lives shuffled from one relative to the next after their parents had divorced when Jackie was five years old. Jackie shared with us that she had never been in the same room with both of her parents after the divorce. She also shared that she had never heard either of her parents utter a kind word about the other since they separated.
Jackie came to us from the county hospital after being diagnosed with metastatic cervical cancer. She was understandably angry and bitter. She was consistently rude to her nurse, who was the kindest and most compassionate nurse I have ever known. Her name was Pat. Upon her first meeting with Pat when asked how she was feeling Jackie replied “I’m 22 and I’m dying. How the fuck do you think I feel lady?” When asked if the chaplain could come to see her, she responded “I don’t need that shit now”. Pat was steadfast and kind and was always open to listening. She offered that her feelings were warranted. Little by little Pat and Jackie built a therapeutic rapport and trust. Her symptoms were controlled.
Because Jackie was dying her boyfriend asked her to marry him. The date was selected, and preparations were made for a very modest ceremony as they were both from poor families. One week before the wedding Jackie’s boyfriend was arrested and she never saw him again. Pat did her best to console her. Pat also developed a rapport with Jackie’s support system, her aunt and cousin.
After a while, Pat asked Jackie “If you could have anything you wanted before you die what would it be?” Jackie said, “I would want my mom and dad to come here and stay with me to take care of me together.” Pat sighed heavily, recognizing the tremendous effort such a thing would require. Pat braced herself and asked again “Could I have the chaplain come and see you now?” Jackie acquiesced and Pat called our wonderful chaplain, Tracy.
Tracy came to see Jackie to discuss her wishes. Tracy visited the mother and then visited the father. Of course, this meant she had to endure the rantings and grievances from both parties about the other. She then visited them both again to broker a meeting. They met and a date was set for them to come and stay with Jackie for a while. We had a team meeting to discuss all our patient’s cases. When we asked Tracy how the meeting went, Tracy said, “Lord, now I know why people smoke and drink”.
After visiting with Tracy there was a shift in Jackie’s behavior and attitude. Thereafter, she wanted to start with prayer whenever anyone visited, which Jackie led. She was kinder and gracious. Her parents came and they took care of all of Jackie’s needs. They bathed her, changed her and fed her together. On the third day (believe me, the symbolism of that phrase is not lost on me) Jackie’s parents stood at the foot of the bed and asked one another for forgiveness. They wept as they held one another. Then they went to Jackie’s side and asked for her forgiveness. They promised her that they were going to do better and work to get along as a family and spend time with the other children. Then they left the apartment.
Upon Pat’s next visit she asked Jackie how the experience was for her. She answered “Now I can die, and it is okay. I did what I was supposed to do.” Within the week Jackie died. I was on weekend call when it happened and went to the apartment to “pronounce” her. Jackie was on a bed under the cover of white linen. She was in a white lace gown. Her hair was long and black, flowing over her shoulders. In her crossed hands her cousin had placed a single red rose. Her 21-year-old cousin told me “What happened here with Jackie was a miracle and it was beautiful.” It was indeed.
Had Jackie ended her life preemptively she would not have escaped her suffering. She would have died amidst her unresolved anguish. She found love, grace, forgiveness and meaning. That is the absolute most any one of us could ever hope for at the end of our lives.