A Passing

Bunny and her great grandson Winston in 2014


Phyllis “Bunny” Gavin Robinson is gone. She died peacefully on February 29, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida.  She was 95.

Bunny was born in 1920 and was my first cousin, once removed.  She was nine years younger than my mother and they grew up together in Norton, Massachusetts.  Indeed, for me, Bunny’s death is the severing of the last link to my mother and her generation.

Bunny was the first of four daughters born to Phil and Helen Gavin.  The Gavin Girls — Bunny, Sally, Mary Helen and Carol — were a force of nature.  The power of four sibling sisters should not be underestimated.  I have known several of these groupings in my life and each has been fascinating to me.  There is a closeness and yet a distancing between these sisters that is almost electric.  They are fiercely competitive yet uniquely giving. They can fight like cats and dogs in one instance and then fall into a circle of intense communication that is almost telepathic.

Before her marriage she served in the Red Cross during World War II and was in the South Pacific when the war ended.  My Uncle Bud, then serving in the Navy, actually visited her on one of the islands during the war, an amazing thing to me.  All of Bunny’s life was amazing to me.   As I was growing up, first in Norton and later in Sarasota, Florida, I would hear stories of my exotic cousin Bunny. Her marriage to Parker Robinson immersed her in the diplomatic corps and Parker was stationed in some fascinating locales in the 1950s and 60s — France, Spain, Chile. Bunny became the diplomat’s wife and she had wonderful interpersonal skills.

She lived long enough to see her first great-grandchildren and, as you can see from the picture, she loved meeting them.  Look at that picture for a moment.  What is passing between those two?  Winston will not remember meeting Grandma Bunny but something passed in those moments that I hope stays with him, a joy of life and a respect for its wonders.

Five days before she died we had our last conversation. I was sitting at her bedside and she opened her eyes. “Alice!” she said.  I said hello and gave her a kiss.  The eyes closed and opened again a while later.  “Such a good girl,” she said.  The eyes closed again for a while and then opened.  Looking directly at me she quietly and sweetly said, “Now, go away.”

My years as a hospice nurse gave me the insight to know what she was saying. She was letting go. Her world was diminishing and she was acknowledging that.  I kissed her softly and said goodbye. Then I went away.

I would see her one more time but she was unresponsive, making the transition to the next world. She was very peaceful and that is how I will remember her. With the passage of time these awful weeks of her final illness will fade from memory and I will recall my wonderful, fascinating cousin Bunny in happier times. And I will recall her courage in the final days…the days that will come to us all…and hope that I can carry that courage to my final time.

RIP Bunny. ❧

Death of a Friend


My friend, Gail Walton, died today, She was 69 years-old.  That’s her in the picture, on the left in the blue shirt. She is with her life-partner of more than twenty-five years, my college friend Bonnie Powell.  The picture was taken in 2000, not long after they got McDuff, the Jack Russell Terrier in the middle.

Gail was a wonderful woman with a big heart. She loved dogs and rescued her fair share of abandoned or abused critters.She ran a pet supply business for a while. She was also a respiratory therapist, a gourmet cook, an M.P. when she was in the Army, and a whole assortment of other occupations or pre-occupations. She was witty and beautiful.

Fawn Hill feels a little lonely tonight. A year ago I never imagined I would be living here, neither did Gail and Bonnie.  After I moved here in June we talked about how incredible it was that we had become neighbors. Gail said, “Alice, I believe some energy has brought you here.” Just a few weeks later she was diagnosed with an advanced case of recurring lung cancer. Eight years ago she had a lung removed and the doctors felt they had gotten all of it. But they didn’t. By the time Gail was diagnosed, just over four weeks ago, the cancer was everywhere. There was nothing that could be done. Hospice was brought in.

Hospice was my occupation for the last six years of my working career. The irony that I would arrive here just before Gail’s awful diagnosis was not lost on any of us. I did the best I could in advising and helping. I have to say, however, that administering hospice care to a friend is so much harder than administering such care to others. When I was working for hospice people would often ask me, “How can you do that kind of work?”  I would explain that there was a certain level of detachment, which is not to say disinterest or aloofness,  but rather an acceptance that death is inevitable and that dying patients deserve compassion and competent care.

When the patient is your friend or a family member (and I have had experience in both instances) it seems that all you have learned in ministering to the dying patient just goes away and you feel helpless. You lose the objectivity that is normally present. Your thought process seems fuzzy and muddled. Actions and reactions that once seemed so sure and competent become tentative. The shroud of grief becomes becomes a straight-jacket that seems to paralyze you.

We did the best we could in caring for Gail. She was surrounded by loving friends and, for the most part,  we were able to control the pain. Still, it has been a difficult time that has once again brought home the fundamental truth: Life is short. Carpe diem! ❧

The Big C and the Bigger D

reaperThis time of year — the last two weeks of May through the first of June — is very meaningful for me.  It’s a cluster time of death.  My father and a brother died on May 31 (19 years apart), my niece’s mother died on May 20, and my husband died on June 2.  During my work as a hospice nurse I learned that this phenomena of “clustered deaths” is not unusual.

So I’m already primed to be thinking about the topic of ultimate termination and my thoughts are getting ample amplification from a wonderful show currently on the Showtime network, “The Big C – Hereafter.”  It stars the superb Laura Linney, an actress I have watched mature from a country waif in the 1993 PBS series “Armistead Maupin’s Tales from the City” through the intelligent and worldly Abigail Adams on HBO’s  “John Adams” miniseries which aired in 2008.

In “The Big C” we have watched Linney’s character, Cathy Jamison, cope with the diagnosis and treatment of melanoma. Cathy has gone through the classic five stages — anger, denial, depression, bargaining, and acceptance — in some rather unclassical ways, like buying her 14-year old son a classy, bright-red Mustang convertible for his 18th birthday.  She places the car in a storage locker  and then keeps adding more and more presents, all tenderly wrapped with cards.  Soon the car can barely be seen under the barrage of gifts for future birthdays, holidays and major life events.

In this final mini-season, Cathy is definitely into acceptance and with good reason. Her melanoma has become more aggressive and so has the chemo.  The combination are ravaging her.  Linney has no qualms about showing the effects of terminal illness.  Her  appearence is startlingly different from the end of season three. According to an interview on NPR, she purposefully lost weight and cut her hair.  Makeup helps complete the look as do her mannerisms.  At one point the character develops a paralysis in her right leg.  Linney’s response to this is both heart-wrenching and hilarious.

The actress has clearly thought about her role carefully. “It’s human nature to — thank God — not have [death] be the first thing you think about every single second,” she says, ” but there is a reality to it. And as I’ve been aging, and parents are dying and I’ve unfortunately lost friends who were way too young to go — you realize what a privilege it is to age. And that’s not a message we hear a lot in the United States.”

Thanks to Linney and the writers at “The Big C” it IS a message being conveyed in this brief four-episode season. The last episode is Monday night and I know that I already want more.  I’ll miss Cathy’s quirkiness and her lovable extended family. But that’s how death is.  All too soon it takes what we love.  Thankfully Laura Linney will go on, hopefully long after Cathy Jamison has left us.  It will be a privilege to watch her continued growth. ☙

Deer Heart

It’s no surprise that I spent part of my Sunday (August 26) at Myakka River State Park. We were under a Tropical Storm watch at the time and the River was already at near flood stage.  If we had gotten the worst of T.S. Isaac I wanted to have a good record.  Isaac decided, like so many storms before him, that getting to the Central West Coast of Florida is a lot of work.  It is a whole bunch easier to cruise through the Florida Straits, ruffle the feathers of the Margarita crowd in Key West, and then use the wide open Gulf of Mexico to feed its fury before making in landfall in Mississippi or Louisiana.

Sunday was a gloomy day and the traffic at Myakka was slim.  The water is high and lots of the wildlife is either displaced or much closer to the pathways than normal.  This momma alligator is a good example.  

She was a few yards off the Power Line Road, protecting her brood with a watchful eye.  There were enough obstacles between her and I that I never felt threatened but I also didn’t feel like pushing any limits to get a clearer shot.

Most of the other trails were washed out for the day. I tried to navigate the Fox High Road but it was hopeless.  Way too much water, not to mention the mosquitos.

So, I began to make my way home and had just crossed over the Park Drive Bridge when I looked to my left and there was this deer.

He was no more than three feet from the car and I was traveling at about 15mph so it seemed as though he was keeping pace with me.  We made clear eye contact and I stopped the car.  He stopped too.  And for a moment we regarded each other.  I finally reached for the camera and was sure this would be alarming.  But he took it all in stride.  Perhaps our moment of eye connection made him realize there was nothing to fear.

He nonchalantly turned to his left and sauntered into the woods.

The next day was a working one, shortened by Isaac’s erratic behavior.  Our offices opened at noon and that afternoon I had a grief support group for mothers whose adult children have died.   It was a smaller group than normal, no doubt owing to the storm as well as summer vacations.  There was a lull in the conversation and then one of the mothers said, “Well, I have something that I need to share.”

Her son had died of a heart attack three years ago.  About a year after the event she was driving home and entered her gated community. She found the road blocked by a deer.  She didn’t know what to do and was startled when the deer walked towards the car and stood by the driver’s window.  She lowered the window and began to talk to the deer.  At one point she touched the deer’s nose.  She was convinced that her son’s spirit had somehow entered the deer.  A similar incident happened to her a few weeks later.

Naturally, as I was culling through these photos tonight, I thought of this lady. I don’t know whose spirit was in the deer that I saw on Sunday.  More’s the pity for that. But I have no doubt that this lady’s story is true. I have heard too many similar tales — stories of butterflies and orbs and lady bugs and objects that move on their own or beloved items that appear without rhyme or reason.

Shakespeare wrote, “There is more in heaven and earth than we can know.”  And while it is true that we may not be able to know it does not mean we can’t be aware.  ❧

Thunderheads mass over the Sarasota National Cemetery

Our National Cemetery in Sarasota is filling fast.  The men and women who served this country during World War II now have the dubious distinction of being the generation that is dying at the fastest rate in the U.S.  I know (knew) so many of them.  I’ve cared for them as a hospice nurse and, in my current role as a grief specialist, I have counseled them and, later, their loved ones left behind.  They are a tremendously strong and proud generation.  They jumped so many huge hurdles in their lives that many can never accept that their time is coming to an end.  Remarkably, many couples that have been married for 50, 60, or 70 years never discuss the prospect of death.  Independent to a fault,  they stubbornly remain in private homes long after they should. They are not able to care for them and their safety is seriously compromised.  Widows lead solitary, isolated lives because they promised their spouse they would stay in the family home forever.  It can break your heart, it has broken mine on many occasions.

So, to those who may be reading this and have a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or friend who is in this “Greatest Generation” do them a favor.  Talk to them about end-of-life plans.  If they tell you “there’s plenty of time for that,”  tell them they are wrong.  Talk to them, ask questions about Plan B (what will they do when they must leave the family home).  Help them sort through the years of memories and possessions.

Some people say that leaving this world is the ultimate “independence.”  Help your loved ones leave with the dignity, safety, and sense of accomplishment that they deserve. ❧

Group Support for Grievers

I dropped by my WordPress dashboard tonight to see what the stats might be for my latest post, a bit of fluff about my cat.  I realized I had several posts in the draft file and the following is one of them.  It is eighteen months old and I no longer work as a grief counselor but it is a fairly good piece of writing and captures some of the angst that a counselor can go through when trying to help the griever. I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it back in 2011. Better late than never I suppose.

❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖

As a grief counselor I see people in a number of different ways; one-on-one, educational presentations, and group support are the main three. I prefer one-on-one because, okay I’ll say it, I like the sense of control. In a one-on-one you can lead a client and you can also challenge a client. If you hear the client going off-track, for example, you can attempt to steer the person back to the matter at hand…their grief. You can gently remind them that all those other problems were there before the death of a loved one, they were not caused by the death. If they will not be guided gently you can, eventually, draw the line in the sand and challenge their actions. More often than not it is a very effective therapy.

Groups are far more…shall we say liquid? The groups at my hospice are not the highly structured, 6 to 8 week course in grief with homework and journals. Our philosophy is that grief requires support and companioning. Generally we prefer grief-specific groups. For example, spousal loss, traumatic death, sibling loss, etc. But we also have the General Grief Group and that, my friends, is always an adventure.

I like to use my general groups as a means to discover which specific group the individual should move on to. For that reason I rarely have the same people at my general groups more than 2 or 3 times. Sometimes people are there once and I’ll not hear from them again even though I make follow-up attempts. I like to think they have gotten what they needed and moved on. For 85% of the bereaved counseling is unnecessary. They have the support of family and friends. They seek “counseling” to hear that they aren’t crazy, that it’s okay to “talk” to the deceased; it’s alright to keep Joe’s sweater so you can “hug” him; dreaming of your departed wife of 63 years does not make you nuts, it makes you normal.

But the thing about general grief groups is that they can make me a little crazy. Every session is a smorgsboard of grief. You never know what the mix of the group will provide but it is always interesting. It’s a bit like Russian roulette with grief.

One of my first group sessions is a perfect example. I had already been on the job for a couple of months, doing many one-on-ones. I’d been working with one woman whose mother had died and she was being subjected to some borderline abusive behavior by her father. She had legitimate grief issues but it was difficult to convince her of that.  Her father kept telling her she should “be over it” and when he started dating just a few months after the mother’s death it was very hard on the daughter.  We reached a point where the one-on-ones were not getting us anywhere and I suggested she try a group. Since my newly formed general grief support group was meeting in a few days it was natural to suggest that group.

Big mistake.

About nine people showed up. I knew only one, the woman whose mother had died. She looked nervous so I decided not to start the “introductions” with her. I chose the lady immediately to my client’s right. “Well,” says I, “What has brought you to our meeting today?”

“My two-year old grandchild died in an accidental drowning.”

Have you ever been in a room when all of the oxygen was sucked out of it? That was the net effect of this woman’s statement. Everyone in the room, including me, had to pick their jaw up off the table. A declaration of this magnitude renders the grief of everyone else as “minor.” It’s not true, of course, but there is a part of us that immediately capitulates to grief of this magnitude. We know at our very core that this kind of grief demands more attention.

And attention was paid. All of us bore witness to this woman’s story of unfathomable grief. And when she had finished it was time to move on to the next…my poor little woman who had lost her mother.  We don’t like to compare one type of grief to another but I could tell my client was deflated. The work of six weeks flew out the window. Her father, I suspect with many years of practice, had already driven this woman into a sense of worthlessness. He had badgered her about how well her mother had cared for him and why couldn’t his children do the same? And now, unwittingly, I had plopped her into a scenario that only re-enforced her sense that she was exagerrating the grief of losing of her mother.

My most recent general grief support group was equally diverse. There were four participants: a mother and and her teenage daughter, a late 50s woman, and an 85 year old man. The man, either by generation or gender, assumed the stage and pronounced his grief. It was profound. He had lost his wife of 63 years (in the interest of full disclosure I feel it is important to tell the readers that I am 63 years old). One day she was complaining of backache, within a week she was dead of some cancer. He was, to put it simply, lost.

The mother with her daughter had lost her husband to a massive heart attack three years ago. She and her children have been in a trauma induced fog but life is beating at the door. The bank wants to repossess the house, the wife has only recently acquired a job. The daughter is a junior in high school.

The fourth participant is dealing with anticipatory grief. Her husband is terminally ill but not yet gone. She is there, she says, because she has some problems with denial.

The pain in this room is huge and diverse. A smorgsborg. The widower rather quickly sees that his case, while sad, is not grim. He wishes he had met the woman and her daughter before he gave away all of his wife’s “expensive clothes.” I look at the mother and daughter, trying to imagine them in the clothing of a deceased woman who married her World War II hero and spent the next six decades dancing at the Elk’s Club every Saturday night. My mind is racing, trying to focus, trying to figure out how I will meld this group so that everyone gets something.

It’s not always this pretty.

And soon I realize, as I always do, that it really isn’t up to me. It is the participants who must find their way and they are doing so. There is, in every group, a magic moment when, for a brief moment, every soul in the room melds with the others. And it comes from the most unexpected person.

On this night it was the woman whose husband still lived. She was quiet throughout the night and the man noted that and asked about the sorrow she was bearing and how she was coping. He was clearly stunned at the burdens of the mother and daughter.  I think he feared that this quiet woman to his right may have deeper, even darker tragedies. I have met with this woman, one-on-one, numerous times, and have a fairly good idea just how deep her sorrow is. I waited for her reponse. She took her time and, in a measured tone said, “Well, I keep thinking that maybe I should just go out and have a beer.”

There were laughs all around. The man offered to take her for a beer. The mother said she would join them. And the teenager? She had that sly grin of a girl, hangin’ with the adults and transitioning to a woman.

I can’t say that any of them had that beer. They all seemed to go their separate ways at the door. But in that last 30-40 minutes, after the beer remark, they were a group, they were friends, and each asked about the next meeting. Will they be there?  Your guess is as good as mine.❧

Hospice – It’s What I Do

Tell someone you work for hospice and you’re likely to get one of two responses.  The most frequent is, “You people are angels!  I don’t know how you do what you do but God bless you for doing it.”  This is normally followed by “My mother (father, husband, brother, friend) was in hospice and the care they got was wonderful….”

The second reaction is, “Wow!” followed by a slight but perceptible shift in the room temperature to a cooler setting and a discomfort that generally stems from a reluctance to discuss any aspect of death or a bad experience with hospice.  It is normally the former but it can be the latter.  People do have bad experiences with hospice which is truly a sad thing to say because death, I have learned, is a wondrous thing and to participate in the passing of someone from this world to the next can be a beautiful and positive thing.

Part of the reason I have started this blog is to share some of my hospice experiences.When I share them verbally with family and friends there is always a sense of wonder and amazement at the work that I do.  More than one person has said, “you should write a book”.  Perhaps, one day.  For the present time we’ll start with a blog.

I presently work as a grief specialist — a counselor of sorts.  I’ve had this job with hospice for about one year.  Prior to that I was a hospice house nurse for four years.  I truly  loved that job but as I start cruising through my 60s I find that 12-hour nursing shifts are harder and harder.  My current job allows for the same satisfaction of helping without the physical demands of nursing.  Win, win.

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