A soul-wrecking good time

by Andrea Powell, HPCCR Electronic Communications Manager

Steve Montgomery and his beautiful family

Have you ever had an experience that just wrecked your soul?  But in a kind of good, life-affirming way?  It doesn’t happen very often.  But last week, at our most recent staff meeting, over 200 of us had an experience just like that.  And when I say it was powerful, I mean that we all left that meeting feeling like our emotions had been sideswiped by a Mack truck.  By the time you finish reading this very long post (you’ve been warned!), you might actually know what I’m talking about.

I think I cried for two hours straight during that meeting.  Yep, it was that moving.  That emotionally draining and amazing.  We laughed.  We cried.  We praised God.  We cried some more.  We held hands and sang Kum Ba Yah.  (No, not really.  But we did hold hands and sing “Lean On Me”.  More on that later.)

Our guest speaker, Steve Montgomery, started the collective waterworks by telling his personal hospice story.  His beloved wife Eileen (and when I say beloved, I mean it was love at first sight — do not pass GO, do not collect $200) died at Levine & Dickson Hospice House almost exactly a year ago.  She left a doting husband and three absolutely precious children.  All of whom we saw, as a visual, in the stunning family portrait that was on the screen behind Steve the entire time he spoke.  I don’t have space to go into his entire story, but let’s just say he had to make some very tough (and terrifying) choices regarding his wife’s treatment.  Each time he had to make those choices, Eileen was on the brink of death.  Cue the tears.

But Eileen and her family eventually found their way to LDHH and had 16 heart-breakingly beautiful days together.  When Steve said that they lived at LDHH, he literally means they lived there.  I’m talking an aero mattress on the floor, right next to the bed, that Steve and Eileen’s sisters fought over so that they could be as close as possible to her during the fleeting time she had left (now the tears were starting to pool in the corners of my eyes). 

Then he started talking about the children.  He described how Eileen couldn’t get enough of the mandarin oranges “fed to her still-lovely lips by our three beautiful children”.  (Yes, that’s what he said.  My heart crumbled and the dam broke.  At this point, I was trying hard not to sob.)  He recalled how the kids liked to go outside and rub their hands through the rosemary bushes to smell the scent of remembrance. 

Steve’s voice broke many times while he was talking.  I’m here to tell you — hearing a man cry over his beautiful wife (and best friend) who recently passed away will do some serious damage to your composure.  But just when we thought we couldn’t take any more, he would crack a joke and we would be laughing, tears still running down our faces.   

Steve’s story was gripping, his delivery was raw, and we honestly hung on every word.  He told us how much those 16 days meant to him and his family.  He let us know that we helped take away the fear.  He said that we made the path easier to walk and he called our services a “gift”.  Absolutely, that’s true.  But it goes both ways.  Steve didn’t realize what an extraordinary gift he gave to every single person in the room that day.  By telling us his story, Steve validated us; he let us know that what we do matters

As noses were being blown and eyes dried, we had the anniversary awards for 5, 10, and 15 years of service . (Hurray!  Happy and outstanding accomplishments!  Laughter!  Clapping!)  But just as we were enjoying the levity, the mood changed yet again.  Larry Dawalt, our Director of Spiritual and Grief Care Services, stood up and spoke about the importance (in this end-of-life industry we have all chosen) of caring for ourselves.  And equally as important — caring for each other.  

You know, we (as an organization) take part in many emotional passings of our fellow community members.  That’s our job and we do it every day.  But it doesn’t mean we don’t suffer from time to time.  Not only do we lose patients we’ve come to know, but we also lose our own loved ones.  We experience grief too.  Our mental well-being shouldn’t be ignored just because our job is to care for others.  Just because we have to always be strong.  

So the plan was to have a service of remembrance.  But it started off  with one of our chaplains, JD Parker, (he’s the son of a Baptist minister — enough said) delivering a rousing message of love, strength, and support.  I mean, he got the room FIRED UP.  The “Amen”s were flowing, heads were nodding, and we were feeling good.

Then we had the actual service.  Each table joined hands and said the following words, “I join this circle of remembrance in memory of (insert name here).”  Happy feelings gone.  Everyone immediately began to think of loved ones they’ve lost.  And remember, I sat at the table with Steve Montgomery.  The flood of emotions from his speech came back and, combined with memories of our collective losses, there were no dry eyes at our table.

Seriously, we didn’t think we could take any more crying.  But our leadership was not yet done with us.  There was one last corkscrew turn in this rollercoaster ride we were on. 

To finish off the meeting, we were asked to continue holding hands while singing “Lean On Me”.  (You know the song — “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on. . .”)  With one staff member playing the guitar, we raised our voices and, truly meaning the words, made a committment to support each other.  By singing those lyrics, we promised to ask for help when we need it.  To stop using the question “How are you?” as a rote greeting and to actually mean it.  To answer that question honestly, knowing that someone cares about the response.

Then we were free to go.  I suspect, however, that the poignant dizziness from that meeting stayed with most of us for the rest of the day.  Maybe longer.  I know that, for the life of me, I couldn’t shake the image of three little children gently feeding their dying mother mandarin orange slices.  In fact, the thought still haunts me today.

I’ve been working for HPCCR for almost five years.  The staff meeting we had last week was, by far, the best one we’ve ever had.  We left that meeting experiencing a spectrum of wildly varying emotions — melancholy, joy, pride, grief, wonder.  And awe.  Overwhelming awe and respect for the mission of our organization and the impact it has on this community.  We left with our souls wrecked.  But in a good way.  Does it make sense now?

Explore posts in the same categories: advocacy, awareness, end of life, grief, hospice, spiritual care

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7 Comments on “A soul-wrecking good time”

  1. David Bayer Says:

    Wow … I could feel the emotions just reading the post. I thought of the loved ones I’ve lost … and realized how important it is to take care of me too … many don’t do that enough. Thanks so much for the post and the renewed belief in my volunteer work with Hospice.

  2. Laura Says:

    beautifully written, Andrea – thanks for sharing!! Laura Murdock

  3. Nina Says:

    I’m with you..he and his familyhave forever touched my soul..I will forever see their smiling faces and the dunes! 🙂

  4. Great story! You are right about the beautiful family and double right when to cue the tears. I was hanging on your every word; I can’t imagine what it was like to be there.

  5. […] Erica, passed away; a wife’s testimony about how hospice is so much better than chemo; a grieving husband who came to speak at our staff meeting to tell us that we are all hospice angels; a Panthers fan […]

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