When a spouse is chronically ill, chances are you may be called to the hospital several times in the course of the illness, to say goodbye. You and your family will come from near and far to be with your loved one at this point. And, with the help of Hashem, your spouse may rally. It is not the doctors’ fault. It is not anyone’s fault that your loved one is at death’s door, repeatedly. It is the nature of the disease. The doctor is doing what is appropriate, according to the knowledge he has.
Meanwhile the family goes through the torturous process of saying goodbye over and over again. I can remember distinctly being called to the hospital. I was told to call my children and tell them to fly in, that it was time to say goodbye, at least six times. Like many of the very strong chronically ill, it was just a rehearsal for the end. But, you never know.
Lillian’s husband, Robert, was in a nursing home for many years. He was well-taken-care-of and looked great for someone who could not talk or care for himself. Lillian went to the home to feed him at least one meal daily. She always stayed and read or talked to him although he never responded, and she and the doctors had no idea if he even knew she was there. One night, Lillian received the call. The nursing home was sending Robert to the hospital. His swallowing reflex was gone and he had been choking. There had been complications, and they told her to prepare for the end. During the week of hospitalization, the doctors all agreed that death was imminent.
Lillian’s sons flew in to say goodbye. During the week they helped their mother put everything in order. Together, they wrote the obituary for the newspaper so she wouldn’t have to do it alone after the death, while the pain was still fresh. They decided who would give the eulogy and what they would say when the time came. They took turns staying at the hospital and were grateful to have had the time to prepare. One week to the day, Richard rallied. He was returned to the nursing home in much the same condition as before.
When I spoke to Lillian she said in the black humor common among well spouses, “Well, I wonder if having the eulogy and obituary ready will make me more prepared when the end does come? This has been one of the hardest weeks in my life and I dread having to relive it. But I know I will.”
The first time Miriam was called to the hospital to say goodbye, she was so upset that she passed a stopped school bus and got a ticket for over $500 and more demerits on her license than she could handle. The second time was a bit easier, having gone through it once before. She wasn’t alone this time. Her daughter was visiting. With a bit little less panic, she arranged for her grandchildren to stay with a neighbor as she and her daughter ran down to see her husband. The third time she got the call, she was having coffee with a friend. Her friend was shocked at her outward calm, not realizing that inwardly she was falling apart, as Miriam took herself down to the hospital and stayed overnight, wondering if she should tell her children to fly in again. And, again her husband defied the predictions.
Miriam was prepared for the fourth time. She called her children, told them exactly what the doctor had said and let then make their own decision about flying in. She told me, she could not and would not try and convince them either way, as the chances were that her husband would rally again. But, she also told me, she’d probably never forgive herself if this was finally the time and she hadn’t pushed her kids to come. But how many times could her children leave their jobs, drop everything and go through the expense of bringing the family in. But, how could they not…just in case.
Do the rehearsals make dealing with the death – when it finally comes – easier? To my way of thinking, it does and it doesn’t. Because you have gone through the motions before, you know where to go, whom to talk to and what you need to do. In that way, it is somewhat easier. But, because you have gone through the emotions before, and you have that repeated hope to hold on to, it is torturous. Going through the pain of losing someone, repeatedly, doesn’t make it easier. It is just intense pain, repeated. But that is just one more gift given to well spouses by their partners’ diseases.