One aspect of working with the dying that doesn't get the attention that it deserves is self-care. In our modern world, there is every incentive to go faster and do more. When faced with actual, honest-to-goodness life and death circumstances, caregivers and families can quickly go off the deep end and over-work, over-commit, or over-extend.
The funny thing is that when we hear the words "self care," we generally know what we should do, but we tend to not do it because we don't have time – a clearer example of irony would be hard to find. We know we should take a break, or go for a walk, or not eat that piece of candy, or count to ten, or take a deep breath, or get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise five days per week, or give 10 compliments per day, or have a regular spiritual practice, or have a creative outlet, or smile even when we feel like frowning. We know these things, but life (and especially death) get in the way of them.
I used to joke that art was my therapy. Today, I no longer joke about it.
In August of 1995 I had a heart attack, cardiac arrest and near death experience. It serves as an inspiration for many of my works, making it clear that art is therapy. Art is also therapeutic to me because it is so different than the way I spend the vast majority of my time as a general internist physician. In that role, I must step outside of myself and relate to the experiences of others, even though my own inner life continues whether or not I am aware of it.
The thing I really like about my job is the opportunity to work in different settings and to meet a variety of people from all different backgrounds. Taking care of people at the end of life gives me a chance to make them feel good, almost like they felt when they were well enough to do things for themselves. Even a simple shave makes a man feel refreshed, better, and more comfortable.
As hospice care providers, we are often caring for people who are in pain or who cannot get comfortable and this is the challenge of this job. We need to consider options to minimize their distress. Some approaches that might work in other settings or for other people cannot always be used, and we need to be resourceful in how we assist these patients. All of us, in whatever discipline, think about this and do our part to help our patients find comfort in small and big ways.
Through my work, I have been especially surprised to meet new people or reconnect with people I've met or cared for in other settings. I find that the world seems increasingly smaller and I am connected with more people than I would have ever known through the care that I have provided. I never know who I might run into again.
My late husband, Tom, loved football. While Tom liked baseball―he was a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan―by August, the Cubs were almost always non-contenders, so it was time for the football season to begin. He really loved the Bears. In fact, according to him, the biggest fight in our marriage related to me cheering for the Packers and him cheering for the Bears. After that fight, I realized I loved him more than the Packers, so I became a Bears fan, too. And even though Tom has been dead for over five years, I still root for the Bears―much to the dismay of my Packer fan family.