December 30, 2019

Holding Space for You

This past Friday morning, I sat in our lobby waiting for the funeral home to come take one of our residents into their care, it was early, and the sun was barely coming up. As I looked out the window, I saw a young woman sobbing in her husband’s arms. I wished there was something I could say that would take away her pain. But she had just lost her sister, her sister who was only in her 30s. It was hard to bear witness, yet I could not look away, it was too powerful, too beautiful and just too familiar.

My first husband was my high school sweetheart, his name was Patrick I met him when I was just barely 15. We lived in towns 30 minutes apart and we spent our high school years taking the bus back and forth every weekend. We got married on his 23rd birthday, had two kids and moved to Utah in January of 2000. That’s when things fell apart. He went back home to California, I remained in Utah. As we had been for most of our lives, Patrick and I remained friends. When he would come visit the kids he would stay with my new husband and me. When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, he met my second husband in Reno to pick up the kids and they shared a hotel room. He never remarried, never even dated after we divorced. Our kids were the most important thing in the world to him.

This past July, Patrick was here for our daughter’s birthday. As an avid hiker, they were heading straight to Moab to camp and hike. However, my daughter called me, worried her Dad hadn’t been well and was unable to eat or make the hike. When they returned home, and I saw him for the first time in months, I was instantly concerned.

He returned to California shortly after and went to instacare after the kids continued to insist. This was the first doctors visit he had made in many years. They diagnosed a stomach virus. Thankfully his employer didn’t buy that answer, and they made him go to the ER. That was where he was diagnosed with Stage 4 gastric cancer.

Patrick was given 6-12 months to live with palliative chemo. Our daughter immediately flew to California to be with him and we started making plans. I asked him to please come to Utah and live with me so that our kids could make the most of their time left with him. My youngest moved downstairs and we got the bedroom next to mine ready for him. When he arrived, he was extremely weak and after a month of being unable to eat, was emaciated. We had applied for Medicaid, but he had not been approved yet. I could no longer take not knowing and I took him to the ER where they admitted him to Huntsman.

Patrick was there for over a week. The kids and I made multiple trips there daily. When discharged, he came home with a PICC line and was set up with Huntsman at Home. They taught us how to care for the PICC line, change his bags of nutrition and work with his nausea. He received one round of chemo in the hospital. The second round sent him back for another few days stay, and we had an appointment set to discuss if they would attempt another round. Through all of this, life went on. Patrick and I had established a schedule and a routine. We talked before work, I’d text and check in throughout the day. Sometimes he’d decided to try eating something and I’d run out to pick up whatever he was craving. In the evenings we’d talk as I changed his nutrition. The kids came over and helped and they’d take him out if he felt up for it. Our son moved his wedding up by a year so that his Dad could be a part of it. I thought a lot about Christmas and how nice it would be to have him with us for the holidays. Our routine and our plans helped us get through the days.

On October 12th, we talked about our plans for the week. I was now draining the excess fluid from his belly at home and we planned to do that the next day in preparation for his possible chemo on Monday. He had decided to cash out a retirement plan and was excited to have some money to do a few things he wanted to. I went to a birthday party at my neighbors, and when I came home to change out his nutrition he said, “Mattie, I’m having a hard time catching my breath.” That’s the last thing he said to me. Despite many valiant efforts, we lost Patrick that night. He was 48 years old.

I have been present for the last breaths of many people. I have grieved with families and dispensed all the usual advice. I have washed bodies and prepared them for their final place of rest. I have been to countless funerals and written many obituaries. I have taken calls from families that just needed to hear one more time what their loved one’s last day was like.

People often ask me how I do this job, how do I take care of myself and I just don’t know how to explain it. It’s just what I do, I believe it is my calling. But this is different. I have lost someone that occupied a large part of my heart and knew me better than almost anyone. I feel a responsibility to take up the slack and love my kids enough for both of us. To remember every part of him and share it so they know all of him. There are days that I forget, and I go to text him something ridiculous that I know would make him laugh. Then there are days where walking into my house causes a weight to settle on me and his absence is unbearable. Grief is wild.

I know I am not the first one to experience a loss like this. I have read all the books. I know the advice. We all will experience loss in life, and we grieve. I get asked a great deal how we help our residents grieve when someone dies here. We hold a memorial service, we have chaplains, but when we as a household just sit and have coffee and talk, that is where the real healing usually takes place. Just having a safe place to talk and share what you are feeling is healing.

There are no rights or wrongs in grief. There are no magic answers that will take away your pain. I do find myself seeking out those that understand. That don’t shy away from the tears, that can just hold space for you. So, let’s make that space. I am not a trained grief counselor; I am not a chaplain. Just a member of the "soul in sorrow" club.

So, let’s talk about it. January 28th, 7pm at The INN Between. All are welcome. Let’s hold space for each other to share how we feel, what we miss, what’s been difficult. I’ll bring the tissues.

December 23, 2019

Roger's Name was Read

When a resident leaves The INN Between, our care for them does not stop. There is often still work to be done, following through on applications for services, scheduling doctor appointments, understanding paperwork, groceries, and sometimes just someone to vent to. Sometimes, people leave unexpectedly and then an attempt is made at trying to find them. I make the usual calls: detox, jail, hospitals, friends, the morgue. I keep my eyes peeled whenever I am out driving. Several times I have found clients sleeping at the library. A few times just walking down the street.

A couple of years ago I was looking for a man that had been living with us when he up and disappeared. He had been staying with us to recuperate from injuries sustained when he was hit by a car. This was the second time this had happened to him. He was a sweet man who struggled with alcohol.  He was difficult to understand, in part due to his strong southern drawl but also due to injuries sustained to his jaw and mouth due to a suicide attempt. After two weeks of constant searching, I was leaving work for vacation when I drove past Smith’s and saw a familiar face laying in the grass out front. My kids were waiting at home to jump in the car and get on the road, and I won't lie, a part of me thought about calling someone to go check on him, but I knew it would eat away at me so I turned around and went back for him. He was passed out and rousing him was difficult. Once awake, I finally talked him into getting in the car where he shared that he had been ashamed to tell me that he had relapsed so he just decided to stay away. I got him back to the house, got someone to shower him and got on the road.

Once more, this occurred with Roger before he drifted out of my life. I'd think of Roger every time I drove past that Smith’s and wonder how he was doing. He would occasionally call and check in with me. 

This year Roger’s name was read at the candlelight vigil honoring the homeless persons that have passed away. It was the first I had heard of Roger’s passing and honestly it shocked me a little, even though I had somewhat expected it. 

Not long after his name was read, I heard another familiar name. A woman that I had visited several times in the hospital, she had declined to come live with us, at times angrily. She was young and wanted to live her life as she saw fit. She was not compliant in her care and bounced in and out of the hospital. Attempting to treat her cancer was difficult. She struggled with drugs. I last spoke with her several months ago, she was going to come up and meet with me. I never heard back from her. 

I have thought a lot about both of these friends this past week. When people die with us at The INN Between I get to say goodbye, tell them what their friendship has meant to me. I wonder if people like Roger know what an impact, they make on those they encounter.

I wonder how many others in that crowd have a story about Roger, or one of the other 94 people that died homeless this past year. Mostly though, I think about who's name I will hear next year that will make me gasp. I think about how I can prevent that. We can't stop people from dying but we can make a difference in how they experience that. We can give them a safe place, dignity and a promise that we will always honor their memory. 

I have a habit of keeping phone messages and texts. It's nice to go back sometimes and hear a voice that you have forgotten. I have one from Roger, "I won't forget what you did for me," he says in it. Likewise Roger.


*Photo Credit: Each year, The INN Between staff participates in the Homeless Persons Candle Light Vigil and they collect the candles with the names of our residents who passed away over the last year. Sometimes, it is during this event that we learn of the passing of some of our friends.