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Is there proof of life after death? This hospice nurse has faith that her patients move on to heaven.
Lenora was dying.
She was 54 and had inoperable cancer. She lay in bed on pillows surrounded by fragrant flowers. The two of us were alone in her room.
Lenora’s family was gathered at her house. Suddenly she addressed me sternly.
“Ms. Nurse,” she said, pointing to a corner of the room, “this big angel comes and stands by my bed. Right there. He’s always smiling at me.” She fixed me with a look. “Ms. Nurse, when I see that angel, do you really think I see that angel?”
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Something in Lenora’s tone told me she’d already tried convincing her family about this angel. Years before, when I first started working as a hospice nurse, I might have hesitated answering her question. I knew all too well the effects of medication and exhaustion on a dying brain.
That day, though, I knew exactly what to say. I knew, because years of working with people at the end of their lives had taught me a new, more hopeful and, I believe, more truthful understanding of death. I knew Lenora was seeing more, not less, than the rest of us.
“Yes, you do see that angel, Lenora. He’s right here in the room with you.”
I never planned to become a hospice nurse. In fact, when I entered nursing school in the 1950s, there was no such thing as hospice, the formal program of care for terminally ill people.
As a nurse I wanted to comfort people and save lives, not be there when they ended. If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said what countless people have said to me over the years: “How depressing to deal with death every day!”
But it isn’t depressing. On the contrary, I mark the day I started work with hospice more than 20 years after I graduated nursing school as the beginning of my real education, an education in hope and joy.
I’ve learned that death is not to be feared. In God’s loving hands it’s the door to peace and everlasting life.
My calling came about almost by accident. I worked for a while for a surgeon until I got married and had kids. I took a break from my career. Then my beloved father-in-law–we called him Grandfather–called one day with the news that he had pancreatic cancer.
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He didn’t have long to live. He and his wife, worried about coping on their own, asked if they could stay with us. Of course.
Soon after Grandfather and Grandmother arrived, I was running errands when I saw a sign for the local hospice organization, started by a minister and a nurse named Paul Brenner and Dottie Dorion. I went in. “I don’t know exactly what you do here, but I think I need you,” I said to Dottie.
Soon, Dottie was helping care for Grandfather, ensuring he was comfortable and spiritually and emotionally prepared for what was happening to him. After he died, Dottie took me aside.
“You’re a born hospice nurse,” she said. “I watched you caring for your father-in-law. You don’t seem to have that fear of death some people have. We’d love to have you as a volunteer.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. True, I was comfortable caring for people at the end of their lives. I’d done it for my dad and for a neighbor named Mary Anne. But they were people I knew.
Dottie was telling me I had a gift. Finally I agreed to volunteer. I had the time now that the oldest of my sons was at college and my husband was traveling less for work.
At once I knew I’d found my calling. Not just because it felt good working again. Not even because I took to helping people in their last days.
I knew hospice was my calling because almost from the day I started, I met people who showed me just how thoroughly I had misunderstood death. I came to understand the joy God has prepared for his children.