John’s death was relatively sudden. Not as quick as a heart attack or accident but not as prolonged as terminal cancer either. He went into the hospital on October 30 and was dead by November 11. Through that week and a half, each day was harder to bear than the one before. I barely had the ability to make it from the hospital back to the house in once piece. Every iota of my being was sharply focused on the crisis at hand. So I was unable to function on any kind of normal level. Here’s some things that helped me get through the final days.
If you’re facing a medical crisis like this, go military: Make yourself the Commander-in-Chief and focus on your war. Everyone’s crucial in a successful army, from officers to privates. I had a tremendous staff of friends who rallied around. Making one friend the primary contact meant that I could funnel updates through her and I didn’t have to repeat the whole story over and over. One friend coordinated food deliveries. One was in charge of helping me to leave the hospital periodically, if only to walk around the block, getting fresh air and some exercise each day. Yet another neighbor helped care for the dogs and the house, ensuring all was well and looked after. And still another friend handled my work load, informing clients and finishing up tasks I left half-completed. I could not have gotten through without my army of support.
It helps if your officers are good at prioritizing and presenting decisions for you to make. You don’t want to have to answer to a million little details. On that same note, prioritize items yourself. Be clear about what you need. Generally speaking, and in the following order, it’s getting food and sleep for yourself, being sure your house and animals are safe (I don’t have children, that’s a different kettle of fish), and taking care of your job and work duties. Unless it’s critical and it’s going to cause genuine long-term damage, go ahead and let things slide. Allow your friends to work how they need to work. If your friends and family make some wrong decisions in their attempts to help, let it go for now. You can always fix things later. You’ll have time.
Regarding phone calls: During these weeks, I would wake up very early, around 5:00 a.m. to get to the hospital in time to share breakfast with John and to be there for morning rounds. I spent all day at the hospital, late into the night and sometimes even longer, depending on what was going on. So when I was able to stumble home I desperately needed to sleep. I grabbed sleep where I could, usually at odd hours, sometimes in the day or evenings. Well-meaning friends calling to check in would often be met with my panicked, half-asleep response as the ringing phone woke me in terror, thinking it was the hospital. Mail is better. E-mail is helpful and I could not only check it at 3:00 a.m. but I could also broadcast major news as needed. Funneling phone calls to a designated friend allowed people to be able to check in when they were able and messages to be passed to me when I could receive them. Remember too that many hospitals do not allow cell phones in the ICU areas so making or receiving calls can be difficult.
Mail. E-mail and snail mail. Write and send cards. They’re appreciated. But please remember. Until the moment death happens—the person is very much alive. If you know the situation is dire and terminal, probably not a good idea to send a “Get Well Soon” card. But a Thinking of You is always good. I was able to read e-mails and cards aloud to John and he loved them. One friend wrote long e-mails about the restaurants she had been to, since she knew John was a foodie. In the last week, he couldn’t speak because of the oxygen but he would scribble notes of thanks back to me.
Drop off books and magazines. Medical crises often involve long stretches of nothing with bursts of intense activity. Getting books or magazines that were easy to pickup and put down was very much appreciated. I like graphic novels, so those were good and I didn’t have to think much when I read them. John loved baseball, so I would read aloud to him from baseball books and that helped to pass time as well as something he very much enjoyed. One friend even brought over Mad magazine, which was fun and silly. Think airport reading—books that don’t require a lot of thought or attention but are lightly distracting from the task at hand.
My friend S. put together a care basket for me that included basic necessities such as facial cleanser, moisturizer, Emergen-C, good green tea, protein bars and the like. It was wonderful. It came in its own basket, so I could tuck it out of the way in the hospital room, and it gave me a way to freshen up that was easy and quick. Believe me, you need it after intense stretches in the hospital.
Long distance? That’s a tough one, it hurts to be so far and feel so helpless. But as long as your friend in crisis is covered with local help, you’ll have plenty to do as time goes by, just try to stay in touch and react appropriately. My amazing friend from my home town helped my mother attend John’s funeral. She also stepped in to manage immediate family needs.
After John’s death, a dear friend from across the country was there the very next day, staying with local friends, helping with day to day necessities and generally managing the flood of household chaos that came during those days. Just having her present to lean on, knowing she would handle anything that came my way and that she would quietly take care of me, was a reminder that I did not have to bear this alone. Others visited a month or so after the funeral was over, which was an invaluable reminder of ongoing friendship.
At the end, when it was obvious John would not survive this battle, I was lucky enough to be able to call in my own General Patton, my avenging angel: my stalwart brother who materialized the moment I needed him most and carried me through the darkest of days. I know I am extraordinarily blessed to have that in my life. There’s only one of him… but I hope you all have someone who can be there for you.