Our toughest week yet

Billy looking out ahead Billy looking out ahead Matilda LIndgren

Since I began working at The INN Between in October 2015, we had experienced one or two deaths per month. But, this week was an exception.  I had spent the whole day in the car with my family driving home from California, but I knew I wouldn't be able to lay my head on my pillow unless I stopped by The INN Between to visit Billy, give him a hug and let him know I was safely back. Billy had been our resident for more than a year. As the program director, it is my job to care for the day to day functions of the facility and the residents, so I make sure to have a good personal relationship with those in our care. Billy and I had become very close. It was after 9 p.m. when I parked my car at The INN Between.  

Mark and Kathleen, our house managers, were getting everyone settled for the night when I arrived, and they quickly let me know about our newest resident, Edward, who had arrived a few days earlier, while I was on vacation with my family. Edward was actively dying. Some of our residents come to stay with us and progress to death slowly. During the months they spend with us, they become my friends. Others are close to death when they arrive, and our job is to care for them and make sure they are safely housed and not alone when they pass. I greeted Edward with a smile and was instantly sad to realize that he was very close and I would not get to know him very well. But, I was glad that The INN Between could provide a place for him to pass comfortably. He would be well cared for during his short stay. I made the rounds quickly to visit the other residents and let Billy know I was back, and then I headed home to get some rest.

The call I was expecting came late Sunday evening – Edward had passed. I headed to The INN Between to prepare him for the mortuary and make calls to hospice and his family. When I show up in these odd hours, there is little doubt why. The atmosphere in the house changes instantly, voices become softer, hugs are quick to come by and tears are easy.

Monday arrived, and I was already tired. As I checked in with our residents, it was clear that some of them who had been feeling fine a week ago were now declining quickly. Over the next few days I informed everyone – staff and volunteers – that we needed to be extra vigilant to ensure the safety of our residents. We  needed to take extra time to just be with them and let them know that they were supported and being heard. On top of the everyday activities of running a hospice center at nearly full capacity, we handed out ice chips, swabbed mouths and held hands. I had to start difficult conversations about funeral plans and any other requests they needed fulfilled before they died. I made tough calls to families and priests. We made notes about changes in their conditions and discussed concerns with the hospice nurse.  As the week progressed, we constantly wondered what would happen next.

What happened next was I walked into the house at 5:30 a.m. Thursday. That early arrival was because Kimberlee was close to death. As I arrived, I noticed that Billy was up and trying to get out of bed. He was struggling and was about to fall, so I helped him back to bed. I told him to relax and that I would be back soon, and I went to say my goodbyes to Kimberlee.

As I sat with Kimberlee, I recalled a conversation we had a few weeks earlier when she had asked me what would happen when she was gone. So that morning, the morning she died, I told her that she was a fun addition to our house and I admired how tough she was. She had just recently started a new job in the mall and had worked up until a few days ago. As I washed her face, I reminded her she was not alone.

The house woke up to the news of Kimberlee’s death. As our house manager, Mark, made breakfast for everyone, I noticed that Robin, another recent addition to our house, was struggling with pain. The on-call hospice nurse had arrived to call Kimberlee’s death, so I asked her to check on Robin, Billy, and Sonya — all three had been struggling this week, and Sonya had been mostly bedridden and often incoherent. The nurse confirmed our feeling that we would most likely see more of our residents pass as the week progressed. We had our volunteers sit bedside with Billy and Sonya – we didn’t want them to be alone for one minute – and Mark, Kathleen (our other house manager), the House Mates (our wonderful volunteers) and I filled in to make sure the rest of the house needs were being met.

That night, my home phone rang at 9:40: Sonya had died. It was shocking that we had lost two of our residents in one day. Her last few hours had been difficult, and I was happy to see her at peace. As I recalled our time together over the last two days, she repeatedly said, “Isn’t she beautiful?” I hoped that whomever she was seeing was now greeting her with open arms.  

I began my Friday by checking in with all our residents. I offered to bring in someone for them to talk to, but they mostly liked to spend time together following a loss – usually in the smoke room – sharing stories and memories of the time they spent together. I devoted a large part of the day checking on Billy in his room and spending time with him. He had been with us for more than a year, and I had become attached to him. Around 3 p.m., I told Billy I’d be back in the morning and headed home. An hour later, I had a panic that I hadn’t said goodbye, just a “See you later.” I drove back and made sure I said what I needed to. Saying goodbye was difficult, but it was time. I left him with one of our amazing volunteers at his bedside. An hour later he was gone.

When I got home late that night I was exhausted. I felt like we had done a great job managing all of our residents in the most challenging week we ever experienced. I hoped those we lost felt how loved they were. I am proud of the peace we were able to maintain in the house and that we provided dignity to those we lost. I was thinking how easy it would be to care for Robin now because no one else was in the stages of actively dying.  

Robin passed away Saturday around 1 p.m. For the fifth time that week I said goodbye, brushed hair and washed a body. I put fresh clothes on someone and straightened the bedding around them. I called the family and held my tears back as they wept. I took a deep breath and waited for the phone to ring with a referral for a new resident.