This past summer my mother-in-law died after a long illness. At the end the family gathered to keep vigil, sharing memories and talking quietly to Mom to let her know how much she was loved. Although as a caregiver I have held the hands of many dying patients, this was different; this time I felt out of place, as if I had forgotten something important. Yes, I was sad, but why was I so…edgy?
As a nurse, I was accustomed to caring for the dying patient and their family. There was always a task to do…wetting dry lips, locating a box of tissues, praying with a patient or holding the hand of a grieving spouse. What does a caregiver do when someone else is doing those tasks? When there is nothing left to be “done”?
On reflection, I discovered that it is OK to simply “be” at the bedside. That just my quiet presence is enough to honor and respect the one I love. I have learned that it is important to take care of me…that it is necessary to grieve for the loss of that person’s presence in my life. And I have discovered that accepting the care offered by others helps them to cope with the pain that they feel, and helps me to heal as well.
Mom taught me much in life. As she died, she taught me to remember that it’s OK to step out of the professional role and simply be a family member. It’s not easy, mind…but it’s a necessary part of the grief process.