On rounds today at the Hospice Care Center, an in-patient hospice unit at Saint Joseph Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, I saw one of my favorite patients whose name is Flora. Flora is an eighty-eight year old lady with advanced malignant lymphoma now being treated for pain due to a recent outbreak of shingles. Despite a thirty pound weight loss over the past six months and pain that has been difficult to control, her mood and spirit have been remarkably upbeat in the weeks that I’ve cared for her. She greets me daily with a smile on her face and a sparkle in her eye. She is mentally clear but physically very fragile.
Flora loves music and often has a tape or a CD on when I enter her room. My wife, Kathy Jo, a nurse/musician, weekly brings her harp to the Hospice Care Center and sings to and with patients. Flora eagerly awaits these visits and gladly takes part in the singing…usually Christian hymns. Today, I asked Flora where she learned to love music so much. She responded that her mother loved music and had her sing for family and friends from the age of four on. It was at that moment that a different look came over Flora’s beautifully aged face. It was a look that spoke of pain and sadness. I quietly sat at the bedside, giving Flora time. Eventually, she told me that when she was eight years old, her mother died because of heart failure at the age of forty-nine. Several tears flowed down the cheeks of that aged woman…tears that spoke of sorrow born eighty years ago…tears of pain that had not completely healed. Once again I was reminded that the pain of death. especially a death out of sequence, is a pain that never completely goes away. It is a rent in the fabric of the soul that eventually becomes integrated and blended into one’s life. I can imagine that little girl of eight being at first confused at the time of her mother’s death and then gradually coming to understand the finality of her loss. In my mind’s eye I saw that over the years she perhaps vacillated between intermittent acceptance of her loss and at other times feeling lost and out of balance with the world, perhaps even coming close to despair.
As I now look at this beautiful woman of eighty-eight years, I see a human being that in some mysterious way has made peace with a terrible event that changed her life completely eight decades ago. As I look on this woman I come to some sense of hope that my own journey may end in the same way. I hope that at the end of my life I will see myself as having been a happy and productive person. Remembering my losses, I will shed tears, but I will live in hope that the world is a safe and wonderful place. I will believe that in some mysterious way we will meet those who have passed before us. Flora said that she knows her own death is coming soon and that its sting is softened by the knowledge that she’ll once again be with her dear mother.
I tell this story as a parent who has lost a child to death. I marvel at the complexity and paradox of life, finding at times the most amazing joy in the midst of agonizing pain and despair. The death of our son, Andrew, has completely changed our family life and structure. It has changed our relationship with our children, our extended families, and our life’s work. Of all the experiences of my life, that event has had the most profound effect. We survived Andrew’s death in large part because of the friendship of those so similarly affected. We had a marvelous group of parents who continuously raised each other up. We have shared innumerable letters, phone calls, meetings, book recommendations, and retreats. Although I cannot say enough about the tremendous support that we received from family, friends, and our church, the sharing of our grief with other bereaved parents has been the critical ingredient in our survival and continued hopefulness.
To you who have lost a child to death, I offer you this wonderful book of personal stories to let you know you are not alone. Hopefully, you’ll discover some similar themes or experiences that will resonate with your own story. My true desire is that this book will, for you so affected parents, stimulate a search for others who have walked this hard path before you. You’ll find people who can, in the flesh, offer what no one else can: true understanding of the depth of your sorrow. From that depth of understanding and sharing somehow healing can gradually take place. With healing comes a sense of hope for the future. My wish for you is that if you reach the grand age of eighty-eight, you’ll possess the countenance of my patient Flora: an old heart full of love, grace and hope, tinged and tempered with the sorrow of loss. I also wish for you that in some unfathomable way the hope comes of one day being reunited with your child.
God bless you all.
L. Gutgsell, M.D.
Hospice of the Bluegrass