Coming to Life Among the Dying
My grandfather died rather suddenly when I was 9 years old. He was a fun grandfather who would do anything to make his grandchildren laugh. He used to come visit, most often as we had dinner, and tell us about his day. He would sit at the table with us and “twiddle” his thumbs, rolling one over the other continuously. He also warned my siblings and me to never eat peas saying, “They just roll off your stomach!” He and my grandmother took my siblings and me to the Carvel Ice Cream shop any time they had the chance, since they lived only about two miles from our house. There were lots of sleep- overs, after which I would have to give him directions back to my house-- I felt so important! He also let me and my sister play “Hairdresser” by putting pink foam rollers in the longer hair on top of his head, then using a floor lamp as a hairdryer. He was wonderful!
Then “Pop” had a nasty heart attack. My parents didn’t give details and, while I knew it was a bad thing, it never entered my mind that he could die. But he did. I was mad. How could “they” let this happen? I wanted details, but none were given. A few days later I and my siblings were given the chance to go see Pop before the funeral. This was my chance! I could find out exactly what was going on-- where he was, what he looked like, if he had his red- rimmed glasses on, if he was comfortable. My siblings opted out, so it was my father and me.
We arrived at the “funeral parlor” as they used to be called and I noticed three or four men busying themselves at a desk. They all looked old and pale, even gray, to me. No one smiled. I actually don’t even remember them speaking, but rather just gesturing the way to the room where my grandfather was “laid out.” I had no idea what to expect.
I followed my father into the room and, at the far end, was the casket. As we approached, I could see the profile of my grandfather and it was then that I realized he was really gone from us. I stood right next to the casket and checked his tie, his hands, his face and wondered why he didn’t have his glasses on. I had so many questions, but somehow knew questions were not allowed. I almost expected Pop to make the pre-tickle sound of rolling his tongue, but he did not.
After a time, we went home where more questions came to me over the next week or so. Questions about how Pop died, whether he could see us, why he was dressed in a suit and not pajamas if he was “resting”, how he would be transported to heaven, why his wife (my Nana) could not get out of bed, and later, how people could go from being so sad at the church to eating and laughing at lunch afterward. So many thoughts for a 9-year-old, but somehow, I knew I would have to find my own answers.
Just about ten years later, my dearest aunt was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was fortunate enough to be able to live with her until the point when treatments were not working. Hospice care was barely in existence where we lived and although we all did our best, the day came when Auntie Bea had to go to the hospital for care.
My heart broke as I watched her scan the house as she made her way to the door. It was as if she was soaking it all in, memorizing every detail and knowing she would not return. Her son drove her to the hospital while her daughter made plans to leave her home in Tennessee to come be with her mother. It was a grueling time for me, but one that would inspire the rest of my days. I wanted to be sure no one had to leave their home to die, if they didn’t want to.
I visited Auntie Bea as much as I could, but back then hospitals had strict visiting hours. As the days went by, I also discovered the hospital had strict rules about pain medication. One day I asked a nurse for medication as my aunt was clearly in pain. She looked at her watch and responded, “Not yet.” That’s “just the way things were” and, as a 19-year-old, I had little power or credibility. My heart broke.
I struggled to find ways to encourage my aunt. Between her increasing sleep and the limited visiting hours, there were very few conversations. I wanted so much for her to know I loved her! Spring had come and I decided to dig up some crocuses from her yard. I put them in a pot and went to visit. I put them right next to her bed so she could see them whenever she opened her eyes. Her daughter arrived from Tennessee and Auntie Bea was more alert than she had been for several days. This “rally” was short- lived and a few days later she died– in the hospital, where visiting hours were strict, everything was on a tight schedule and rules were rarely bent.
I was headed to college in the fall to study psychology, but I also began searching out care models for people who were at the end of their lives. Without the internet, my research was slow, but I was determined. In my junior year of college, I was able to do an internship at a newly opened Hospice in my college town. I felt myself coming to life and I knew this was where I wanted to be!
As any psychology student knows, graduate school is most always in store if employment is expected! I knew I wanted to be a homemaker, spouse and mother, so graduate school was in my fifteen-year plan! I married and had two sons, all the while reading whatever I could find about the end-of-life experience, hospice in particular, talking with anyone from whom I could learn more and dreaming about working with dying people. When my sons were in their early teens, I returned to academia to earn a Master’s degree in counseling and theology. In the fall before my May graduation, a friend let me know of the opening of a Chaplaincy position at a hospice in town. Although a full time job and a full schedule at school would be difficult, I was determined. I interviewed for the position. After taking the phone call letting me know I had been hired, I sat in my car and cried. I had done what I could for my Auntie Bea, and now I could do so much more for other peoples’ family members! This was the beginning!
Bio: Suzanne Bea Slover Leahy is a Hospice Chaplain and aspiring writer who is currently working on a book about dying. Suzanne became passionate about Hospice care when her dear Aunt Bea, for whom Suzanne was called, died of colon cancer in 1978. Auntie Bea’s death guided her to a career as a Hospice Chaplain, where she met and cared for hundreds of wonderful people as they approached death. Suzanne has two grandbabies that bring her joy and she continues to work as a Hospice Chaplain, where she feels most alive.