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The Mysterious Power of Hope
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer---Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
Mystery is not an argument for the existence of God; mystery is an experience of the existence of God. Very much like suffering and joy, mystery can often be that place in which we come to know better who God is, and who we are.
-Peter J. Gomes
TOM WAS A NEW PATIENT at our hospice, and I stopped by his room to tell him about our pastoral counseling services. After introducing myself and meeting one of Tom's sons and his wife, I turned to Tom and asked, "How are you doing?"
He peered through eyes that were deeply set in the sockets of his cheekbones and said, "That's a stupid question. I wouldn't be here if I were doing OK, now would I?" The twinkle in his eye told me that Tom had a very dry sense of humor.
I replied, "We both know how you're doing and why you're here, but I want to know how you are doing today, under these circumstances."
Tom thought for a moment, then replied with slow, hesitant speech, "Bill, have you ever been here when someone has died?"
I nodded and said, "Yes, I have."
"How did they do it?" Tom asked.
I realized that this was a serious question, so I said, "Tell me just what it is you want to know."
He said, "I just want to know what I can do to die."
"Well, Tom," I began, "I'm not sure I can give you a formula that works every time. From my experience, there seems to be one controlling force that a dying person has, and it is that part of us that relates to our will. It is a fact that when a person wills or wishes to live for a certain event, say a birthday or an anniversary, he often does so, and then he dies soon after." This being the year 2000, I told Tom that it had been documented that more people than usual died just after the start of the new year and that it was thought that they wanted to live to enter the new millennium. "Let me ask you this," I continued. "Are there any reasons for you to want to live beyond today?"
Tom responded quickly and without much hesitation, but still with his slowness of speech, "Yes, there is. I have a daughter coming from Utah today and a son flying in from Maine on Sunday. I want to see them. I haven't seen them in a long time."
"That sounds to me like a pretty strong reason," I said. "When you get to see them, will that mean that your house is in order and there are no more loose ends to tie up?"
"Exactly. They're going to be here over the Memorial Day weekend and then for a few extra days. I'm anxious to see them."
"It sounds like it's pretty important business to take care of. What you are doing is hoping for something to happen. Even in your dying condition, you are able to hope. It is that hope that I was speaking about when I said a person can wish for something to happen before he or she dies. Your hope isn't measured in years or even weeks but in a few days. That is a powerful force that can enable a person to hold on until he's reached that certain goal. I will hope with you."
Tom smiled and said, "Thank you." I looked at his son and daughter-in-law and asked if they would like to share a prayer together with us. They agreed, and we held hands while I asked God to grant to Tom the desire of his heart to see all of his children over the weekend.
The following day was Sunday, and I was back in Tom's hospital unit. I stopped in to see him, and he introduced me to his daughter, who had arrived from Utah. He said that his son would arrive that evening. He seemed very satisfied.
Later, as I sat at the nursing desk filling out my reports, a nurse who had noticed me visiting with Tom said, "Guess what Tom told me this morning during his bath?"
"What did he tell you?" I asked.
"He said that his children were all going to be here with him over Memorial Day and through Wednesday, and that he was going to die on Thursday."
I smiled and shared with the nurse the conversation I'd had with Tom the day before. We both knew that there was no guarantee Tom's prediction would come true, but we were both hopeful that he would get his wish.
In the end, Tom didn't die immediately after his hope to see his children was fulfilled. He lived for six more days before finally passing into eternity. But when he died he knew that he was ready.
Lessons for Caregivers
Tom's question sounded very much like the one John asked me in the last chapter. Caregivers may find that dying patients often ask similar questions, but it is important not to assume that the questions always mean the same thing. When I pursued Tom's question I discovered that, unlike, John, Tom still had some reasons to live before he was ready to die. By helping a dying person to focus on some specific reason that he or she would like to live, we provide a measurable time span for that hope. It is a fact that many deaths have occurred after the patients have celebrated some special event. Hope, in some mysterious way, energizes the will and gives the person a sense of control over the timing of his or her death.
Just what the dying patient hopes for is very personal. Tom's hope---to see someone who was very special to him---is a hope that is commonly expressed by the dying. In Tom's case the hope was to see his son and daughter who lived at a distance and who had specific plans to visit him at a specific time. Because their plans were made, Tom could think in terms of the number of days until they arrived and could anticipate his hope being fulfilled in the time they would share together.
The mysterious process of closure that Tom experienced reminds us of how important it is to not rob the dying patient of hope but rather help to redefine it. When the dying express any wish or desire, they are giving us helpful information as to what or whom they value, as well as the time frame of living in which they expect to find meaning. It is the anticipated marker on the calendar (anniversary, birthday, holiday, or visit) that they define as important, that may trigger the will and give them some sense of control. Such control is very important to people who are totally dependent on others for everything. Listening for what is wished or hoped for helps the caregiver know how best to support and care for that person.[5-8]
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