Familiar memories stirred and informed me. I knew how to do this. Sitting for hours and hours at a woman’s bedside. Aware, patient, fully present – responding to subtle changes in her breathing, hearing the soft moans through dry lips. Offering water, ice chips. Massaging lightly scented rose cream on her soft, frail face and delicate hands. “That feels so good,” she said as she moved her lips without sound. I whispered timeless words of encouragement. “You’re almost there. We’re here. You are not alone.” The intense feeling of déjà vu left me shaking my head. This time, though, there would be no baby. I was being a midwife to a close friend who was dying, not giving birth.
She had endured a long and difficult journey with stage IV ovarian cancer. Endless toxic chemicals dripped into her veins for years, buying precious time. She was very brave and almost always gracious, never losing hope that she would be cured somehow. Young and vibrant, she lived with a gentle, relentless passion for serving and benefiting others in her work and life. She couldn’t imagine not surviving; there was still so much she wanted to do and offer to this world. But as her numbers escalated, and she became weaker and incapacitated, she entered reluctantly into hospice care. I had promised that when she needed me, I would be there to accompany her and support her family, and now that time had come.
She had transferred to a residential hospice center the day I arrived. I think she knew that it was getting more difficult for others to provide for her at home, and she wanted to remain as independent as possible and not depend on family, friends, and her Buddhist community for the intimate, personal care. She wanted us there to hold the prayers and spiritual practices from her tradition that would support her at the time of passing, and I, being a hospice nurse, was asked to help coordinate her symptom management with the staff in accordance with her wishes to be out of pain, but as lucid as possible.
It became apparent that it would not be long before she passed from this life. Each day her physical condition declined, her energy becoming quieter. Turning inwards, she related less and less to her outer environment and the people around her. She was getting ready to leave her body. Even as our hearts were breaking our support focused on helping her to let go.
Someone was always in attendance. Her sweetheart stayed with her throughout the night where they could be alone. The rest of us moved gently in and out during the day. The staff showed great sensitivity and respect for her wishes and disturbed her very little, knowing we would reach out when we needed something. Her room became a holy place. The melodic and haunting prayers that were softly chanted at her bedside moved the staff deeply. In their experience, this was not how most people passed away and they were drawn in by the peace and calm presence that surrounded her as we maintained a loving vigil in her final days.