Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Bright Side

When I was in yoga teacher training, I remember my instructor saying that one of the most important things a yoga teacher can do is hold space for people. At the time, I thought I understood the concept. Holding space. Letting people have their own experience of the class and not what we (as the teacher) want it to be for them. But as I look back on my time teaching yoga, I realize that I spent a lot of time filling space for people as opposed to holding it. Of course that was not my intention, but I know that is what I did in many of the classes I taught.

This week we made the decision to admit my Dad into a hospice program. We have been talking about it for a few weeks as my Dad's health has continued to decline. Everyone we have talked to has spoken about the benefits of hospice and has said that they wish they had started it sooner for their loved one. And yet, it is a hard decision to make. 

It is hard for many reasons. Many people think it means that they are giving up hope or letting the person down. They may also worry that the person who is dying will stop fighting if they find out they are going into hospice. And it also forces the family to acknowledge that the person is going to die. Some people are not able to let go of that elusive hope for recovery. 

I am actually relieved that we have chosen hospice for my Dad. As much as I am devastated that we are losing him, I am also happy that we will be getting the services we need to keep him home in his final weeks of life. That is the one thing he has been clear about this entire time. His desire to be at home. Hospice will allow us to honor his wishes.

Today his home care nurse called to check in and I had to tell her that we were going to move into hospice. Once we move to hospice, the services my Dad has been getting from the home care agency will stop and hospice will take over. This nurse has only been assigned to our case for a few weeks since my Dad was released from the hospital. She is a boisterous woman with a big personality that fills the entire room. She is also one of those very well-intentioned people who seems to consistently stick her foot in her mouth. At least that has been my experience so far.

When we met her, she told us the story about how she had open heart surgery about a year ago and ended up on a feeding tube and respirator. Her family thought they were going to lose her but she slowly came back. It is an amazing story and of course, she is grateful to be alive. Based on that experience, she believes that anything is possible. And she brings that perspective to all of the patients and families she encounters.

Every time she comes over, she tells us that story again and reminds my Mom that miracles can happen. Which is nice to hear, except when you are trying to come to terms with the real possibility that someone you love is dying. When I talked to the nurse today, I let her know about our decision to move to hospice and that we would no longer be needing her services. She said that she was sad to hear it but that she knew it might happen and she would let the rest of the team know. That should have been the end of the call. I certainly didn't have anything else to say to her.

She could have said thank you, or it has been nice working with you, or good luck to you. But instead she continued the conversation by explaining to me that just because people go into hospice, it doesn't mean they are actually going to die. She said that maybe my Dad might turn around and things might get better. I don't really remember what else she said, but she rattled off a few more pieces of unwarranted advice and then finally we got off the phone.

It is amazing in the healthcare industry, especially in the home health industry, how total strangers can gain a false sense of familiarity with the people they work with. Sometimes very authentic relationships can form, and I have witnessed that with some of the people who have been helping to care for my Dad. But other times it is just awkward. I think the home care staff forget that we are captives in our own home. We do not get to review resumes and choose the people who show up at our door to care for my Dad. The agency just sends them and we have to try and get along with them as best we can.

Anyway, something about that conversation with the nurse really stuck with me. I have only met this woman three times. I barely know her. And yet, she is entrusted with some of the most personal information about my life. And my Dad's life. I have not even told many of my close friends that my Dad is dying or that we are choosing hospice. 

Not only does this woman know all of that information about my family, but for some reason she felt that it was ok to share her opinions about it. And even to try and tell me how to think or feel about the situation. Obviously, her near-death experience gives her a certain perspective about life and death. Maybe she believes that life is something you cling to and hold on to as long and as hard as you can. Whereas, I believe that death is a natural part of life. Something just as sacred as birth. And as much as I am sad about losing my Dad, I am not trying to deny or run away from this experience. 

People come from various places and yet we all share space on this planet. Some people have had relatively little suffering in their life, while others have experienced many deep and profound losses. I remember during my yoga teacher training, my instructor warned us that sometimes a student might start crying in class. And she advised that, unless they asked for help, the best thing to do was just to let them be. I have never had that happen to me, but now I understand how it could happen. I have not been able to make it to my favorite yoga class since my Dad got sick. And the first time I go back to class after he is gone, I think it is highly possible that I will fold up into sleeping swan and cry my heart out.

There is a difference between holding space and filling space. There have been many times in my life when I have been a space filler. Not only as a yoga teacher, but other times when I have been in the presence of friends who have experienced the loss of a parent, a sibling, an unborn child. I have tried to cheer them up with a story or distract them with idle small talk. But I had no idea what I was saying because I had never experienced a loss on that level.

As humans, we do not always need to be redirected to look on the bright side. And furthermore, the opposite of the bright side is not always the dark side. I am not ready to lose my Dad. I don't think anyone is ever really ready. But I am trying to prepare as best I can for what will happen next.

All I have is the reality of the present moment, and all of the emotions that go along with it. The struggle to find acceptance. A sense of profound sadness. An overwhelming feeling of uncertainty about the future. Gratitude for my Dad and what a wonderful father he has been.

And yes, even in these very painful moments, I do have hope. But it is not false hope for a miracle cure. It is the hope that my Dad will have a peaceful transition. And that I will have the strength to get through this. And that the people I encounter along the way will be gentle and hold space for me. And that I will learn through this experience how to do that for others.

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