When a loved one passes away, it can often be unbearable to talk about or even comprehend. It can bring back a rush of memories or make you think about the little things in life that you took for granted but now seem like things you’ll never forget. To Ms. Hillenbrand, the small things are what she’ll cherish the most.
Below is a letter written by Ms. Lisa Hillenbrand to us about her mother’s care during her time at Grand Oaks before her passing. We understand that many find conversations about life and death difficult, though we felt strongly that Ms. Hillenbrand’s journey with her mother during her last day is worth sharing for all who are open to this conversation.
When something bad happens, “look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers famously said. As my mother was dying and each of the many care managers at the Grand Oasis Assisted Living Residence was ending their 12-hour shifts, they quietly tiptoed in and said their goodbyes to her. I’ve never experienced such selfless love. Their jobs are demanding intellectually, physically, and emotionally. They don’t make much money, and they work long hours. And they eventually lose all those they care for to death.
In the middle of her last night, one of the care managers had to move my mother to make her more comfortable. I watched in awe at his tenderness, talking soothingly to her. “Sweet Liz, it might hurt a little, but I’ll be as gentle as I can.” He stroked her hair and face, held her hand, and continued to talk softly to her as he made the painful moves. She’d broken her pelvis, and all movement was painful. Afterward, I said this must be so hard for him. “No,” he said, “she’s like my grandmother. I love caring for her.” This young man works from 7 pm to 7 am night after night caring for the sickest among us.
My mother died at dinnertime. My stepfather, sister-in-law, and I were there as she took her last breaths, watching her chest gently rise and fall for the last time. She once told me that at my birth, as I was taking my first breaths, she looked at my tiny feet and imagined all the places they would take me. And I thought, with gratitude, of all the places her body had taken her and that mine had taken me.
We were all beyond exhausted. They left us to be with her and say our last goodbyes and then someone came in and said that they were preparing a special dinner for us as we waited for the funeral home to pick up her up.
The cook came out and hugged me, weeping. “I loved her. She had the most wonderful laugh,” she said simply as we both cried.
Of course, we all said we were not hungry. But we each thought the other needed to eat something. And of course, we were all ravenously hungry. It was a delicious meal of baked salmon, vegetables, and even warm pecan pie with ice cream. I devoured the pie in small ladylike bites in the family tradition. My mother would have approved!
There was a special goodbye ceremony as they took her away, and one of the care managers had set up a memorial tribute with pictures of my mom in the lobby. Everyone gathered to hug us and wish us well. Most of them were crying with us.
It was one of the most beautiful, spiritual events I have ever been part of. Death in our culture is so often hidden and not seen or talked of. These care managers face dying and death every day and do it with caring, compassion, and strong, selfless love.
– Lisa Hillenbrand April 9, 2018