Nurses are expected to be in helping relationships, assisting our clients to an optimal state of wellness throughout the life cycle, from birth through death. The fact that a person can have embrace wellness even in dying was demonstrated to me while accompanying my friend, Jeannie, as her life ebbed away due to cancer.
As she came to grips with a terminal prognosis, she tenaciously held on to life. Being involved in her life and death was a touching and sad time, but it was also a positive influence in my life. Our lives mingling at this time helped me to grow in appreciation of the degrees of “wellness” and in the value of life itself.
Jeannie’s willingness to share innermost feelings and concerns through conversations and in letters was quite revealing. During particularly reflective moods, or while in pain during the wee hours of the morning, writing letters seemed to be a catharsis for her and drew us closer together in the process. How comforting it has been to revisit my friend through her written words.
One letter showed a deepening philosophical approach to life: “I never thought I would learn to live and enjoy one day at a time, to have yesterday and tomorrow where they belong, and to gain from them for today. Pain can help us have a deeper appreciation for joy. If it didn’t rain, how could we enjoy sunshine? If not illness, how can we truly enjoy being well?” Another day she said, “I smile when I hear a complaint about a ‘bad hair day.’ Having lost my hair to chemo, even a ‘bad hair day’ would be appreciated. ‘I have to lose a few pounds,” or ‘I have to cook dinner,’ – if only they knew! Count your blessings that you can cook and that you have a few pounds to spare and to lose.”
She continued, “I’ll never live ‘today’ again. ‘Today is a one time opportunity.” Jeannie said she was influenced by a saying she had read that went something like this: “Yesterday is gone – today is an uncharted course. Live today so that it will be a beautiful memory tomorrow.” She kept reminding me to take time to see the day for the opportunities that existed, stating, “We should do in a day what we can within our own limitations.”
Having retired due to deteriorating health from the job of Sheriff’s Deputy, interest remained high in the department’s activities. She organized a dinner to honor retirees from the Sheriff’s department, seeking to draw friends together and help them feel good about themselves and their accomplishments. Later, even as the illness progressed, she volunteered to help in an election campaign. Although unable to take an active part, a sign was placed in the yard supporting a candidate, postcards were mailed and phone calls were made encouraging voters to participate in the election.
Jeannie was concerned about how her illness and death would affect those being left behind. She was particularly concerned about her three children, their spouses and the grandchildren. Seeing the family rally around and pull together produced a sense of satisfaction. Her son assisted with painting the house and furnace repairs; and her daughters prepared meals, cleaned house and ran errands. All helping in transportation to and from doctor’s appointments.
On one occasion, after a visit to the clinic, her grandchildren were playing around on the grass near the doctor’s parking lot. All were happy – laughing and carefree – which left Jeannie with a feeling of warmth and comfort. She cried from time to time over what cancer was putting them through, and prayed that the whole experience would create stronger ties and draw the family even closer together for the future.
Faith in Christian beliefs, especially the promise of eternal life, gave solace and strength. The thought of being reunited with her precious family was a comforting one. She spoke of a heavenly, joyous reunion with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. A personal relationship with God, and a Christian bond and love with family and friends gave her spiritual peace.
In dying, Jeannie experienced a degree of wellness. She fought to the end to take each day, one moment at a time, trying to interact with God, family and friends in a positive, productive manner and seeking “the best that life has to offer for today.”
Winifred R. Bennett, MSN, RN
Instructor, Riverside School of Professional Nursing