Within the context of Hospice care, Christmas and New Year is often a complex, difficult and lonely time for the ill and their families. In my years of direct support to patients, it never ceased to amaze me how people nearing the end of their lives, hold onto life. It seemed especially prevalent at this time of year. The will to live remains strong albeit in a frail, wasted body. This has been explained as the work of review (patients are mostly in a sleep state), where necessary unconscious processes are at work, and for this to happen, time is needed; for as long as it takes (Holmes: 1998). Patients may be processing issues around: unreconciled relationships – waiting for an opportunity to ask forgiveness, or being forgiven; concern for loved ones who ‘are left behind’ – how will they cope? Profound sadness for having to ‘let go’ of children whose future will continue without the dying parent; holding on for a final farewell to a loved one who might not be available. These lingering deaths and perceived suffering often heighten the sense of exhaustion and isolation for caregivers and families at this time. We also need to remember those who will be spending Christmas (perhaps their first) and the start of a New Year, having lost a loved one, whether recently, or not. This person may have been a spouse, parent, grandparent, close friend or child. With an increased emphasis on social interactions and connections at this time of year, the pain of the loss or remembering may be experienced more acutely, and loneliness is often exacerbated.
So as we become increasingly pre-occupied (or annoyingly distracted) by our festive preparations, let us reflect upon the lives of the profoundly ill, their caregivers and the bereaved. Let us consider how we might in our personal capacity, extend ourselves to them and offer comfort and care; and in so doing, bring hope, subdue isolation and despair, and support the real essence of Christmas.
Written by Fran Tong, General Manager, Overstrand Hospice.