12 Do’s (and Don’ts!) Supporting a Friend Through Surgery

or… What I Learned Last Week Through Trial and Error

myBabsy.JPG

I spent a chunk of last week caring for my dear friend Barbara after she had surgery.  I have never had surgery and really had no idea what to expect.  I just knew that this is one of my best friends and I wanted to be there for her and so I volunteered to be her main person for the first few days.  What I know in hindsight is that this is no small task nor should it be taken lightly.  And…it’s not for everyone.  So I’ve compiled a list of what I learned in the hope that it will help others – both caregivers and people about to have surgery – so that they can make the best decisions about who is in their space at this tender time.

DO’s

1-Play to Your Strengths

For example if you don’t have the best bedside manner but you make a really mean chicken soup, volunteer to make meals, but don’t sign up to be the hand holder for your friend or family member when she’s getting prepped for surgery.  If you decide to take on the “job” of caregiver, go for it wholeheartedly and no holds barred. Be on board. If rubbing somebody’s feet makes you squeamish, find someone who is great at giving massage to come sit with the patient while you have a little break.

2 – Take Your Job Seriously

Remember that you are the gatekeeper and that your job, to the best of your ability, is to filter all the personalities, energies and information that the patient is being bombarded with. You are an advocate for the patient.  You’re another set of eyes and ears, don’t be afraid to take notes or even record the doctor when they are speaking.  In my experience, nobody minded when I asked for clarification on certain things or had questions about the aftercare instructions. In general, I felt that the hospital preferred that I was there as a go-between for Barbara.

3 – Be Gentle with the Patient!

Even if you’ve never had surgery before, it’s important to note that the days leading up to surgery, immediately after the operation, and the days shortly after the procedure can be a very tender and vulnerable time for the patient and her family. My friend Barbara kept saying that the veils were thin.  I think she was referring to the fact that all of her defenses were stripped away and this can be a time where fear and powerlessness are magnified.  Be especially gentle and kind with your loved one.  This is definitely where a nurturing and gentle caregiver will be preferred over somebody with very little bedside manner.  Let that person run errands for you or help in other ways.

4 – Have Food in the House

Do have lots of yummy and nourishing snacks available in the house for the patient after surgery. Don’t assume that the patient only wants to eat soup or bland foods. In fact, I knew Barbara was feeling better on day two when she started fantasizing about lasagna!

5 – Rest

Encourage the patient to have many breaks and to rest quietly. It can get a little overwhelming with friends and family calling, texting, and stopping by. No matter how wonderful it is to be reminded how loved she is, my little Energizer Bunny needed quiet time so that she could recharge. One of my best memories was playing my Dragon Drum for Barbara while she napped.  Also in this category, do encourage the patient to take her 3 AM pain pill and go right back to sleep.  You do not want her to get chatty, nip that right in the bud.  You need your sleep too!

6 – Show Some Emotion

Let yourself have feelings. Your friend will appreciate someone else expressing themselves; it’s not just the patient who is feeling an overwhelming amount of emotion. Once all the forms were signed and Barbara came out of the bathroom in her cloth gown and paper cap, s*** got real and I couldn’t help myself, the tears just flowed.  Barbara held my hand and it was a very loving moment.   Also, don’t be afraid to share a laugh – always good medicine (where appropriate, see below.)

DON’Ts

A lot of these will seem like a giant “Duh!” to most of you but I assure you these were either learned the hard way or witnessed.

1 – Don’t Forget to Eat

Don’t eat the patient’s yummy nourishing snacks!  And don’t underestimate how hungry you as the caregiver might get.  It’s important to think ahead if you can and if you have that luxury, stock the refrigerator for you as well.  When well-meaning friends text and ask what they can bring you can also say that the patient is very hungry and wants chocolate and almonds (even if they’re really for you!)

2 – Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive to Surgery

Do not, repeat do not, let the patient drive herself to the hospital on surgery day with you in the passenger seat. The patient has a lot on her mind and will be distracted. When she tries to back up into a very tiny space it will not go well.  Avoid this scenario by insisting upon driving.

3.  Laughter is Good Medicine Except When Patient is Nervous/Crabby

Don’t make too many jokes right before surgery. Usually the patient will not appreciate you making references to your giant pimple on your face and asking the surgeon if they have any medical recommendations for you.   Once again, the patient will not think this is funny.  Neither will the doctor.

4.  Let It Roll

Don’t take anything the patient says prior, during, or after surgery personally.  A lot of emotions can come up.  It’s best to encourage the patient not to make any long-lasting, life-changing decisions in this general window of time.  The patient’s mood could be perceived as erratic – something seemingly harmless like a little elderly man pushing a motorcycle up a hill could drive the patient into a murderous rant.  Best to just soothingly reassure the patient that you hate that motorcyclist too…there, there.  The patient will have almost zero recollection of what they said or asked for. For example when your friend/patient asks you to mince garlic in her lemon water she might actually mean ginger and will look at you like you have sprouted a second head when you ask her if she really wants you to put garlic in her tea.  (Actually, as I write this, it occurs to me that this section could be written for perimenopause too…aaack.)

5.  Don’t Be A Jerk

In her tender time post-surgery, do not give the patient any books regarding her medical condition or tell her stories about people who have died from the same medical condition.  Right?  Also in this category, do not judge any type of procedure or follow-up care the patient decides upon afterwards.  This may take an attitude of trust on your part, but I assure you most people think long and hard and confer with their doctors and their loved ones before they decide on any follow-up treatments and it is OUR job as a supportive community to love our friends and family members through all of their decisions without judgment or opinion unless asked.  And even then, people, use your heads.  Remember…this is a tender time.  Tread lightly!  No bombarding the patient with statistics and medical data.

6.  Don’t Forget What a Sacred Window of Time you are Sharing Together

Take as much opportunity as you possibly can in the surprisingly busy days post surgery to reassure your loved one what an absolute gift it is, and continues to be, to spend time with them.  To hold their hand, to do their laundry, to steam there garlic tea, to warm up their soup, to stroke their hair, to give them a kiss, to cry with them, to laugh with them, to drive them around, and to just be in their presence.  It is a rare gift to share so intimately with another and I am grateful to have had this bonding time with my sweet friend of 26 years.

brabra
Isn’t she cute?

Huge thank you to my family and friends for supporting me in making this trip happen, kids got shuffled, pet/house sitter bent backwards, drum carrier got fedexed so I could bring it with me on the plane, friends held space for me and said healing prayers for Barbara.  I know it’s cliche but it truly takes a village.

Kindness Matters

compassion

On Sunday, as I was going through security at DIA,  I saw a TSA agent help an elderly man who was struggling with his backpack.  It was a busy morning and people were rushing to empty their bins and put their shoes back on, and the man was trying to quickly exit the security area but his backpack strap was tangled and he couldn’t get his arm through.  The TSA agent reached over and lifted up the pack so that there was more room to maneuver and the man  was able to put his pack on.  Tears stung my eyes at this simple act of kindness between strangers.

Last week I sat vigil with a man who was dying.  I do this as often as I can, but what was different about this time was that he was conscious.  Not just awake but aware.  This was a first for me. It’s one thing to walk in as a complete stranger and sit with a person who is dying when they’re unconscious, but to walk in to somebody’s room when they’re alive and present seems presumptious at best and intrusive at worst.  In that moment I had to push ego aside (“Will I be good enough?”, “What do I have to offer?”, “Who am I to be here?”) and say a prayer to be of service.  To say he was gracious would be an understatment.  Welcoming me into his journey, his transition, with a smile and a whispered “hello”, it was his kindness that allowed me to access my highest self and connect on a soul level for a brief period.  We prayed together, I stroked his magnificent head and laid my hand on his heart.  To love freely, without any thought of past or future, is to truly be present and timeless.  The gift was all mine.

I looked up the definition of compassion and learned that it translates as “suffering together.”  And it’s not just about suffering – when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.  Compassion generates more compassion.  Beautiful.

Yesterday I shared a burden with a friend and she cried for me as I could not.   I was numb and all cried out.  Even though my heart was heavy, seeing the kindness, the compassion, in her eyes, gave me a sense of peace and I felt lighter, less alone.

“Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion. ”  

-Dalai Lama

 

Aint Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang

Harlan G

Got your attention?  I’m talking about the ‘G’ word…Grief, not Gangsta.  I hope you don’t stop reading just because you found out this post is about grief.  I think people, and Western culture in particular, have an unease about the word grief.  “Ugh…so heavy…grief” my friend says when she hears that I’ve titled my trip to India ‘Transcending Grief’,  “I just think of a bunch of women sitting around crying” she adds.  I get it.  I changed the title to something lighter, more fun sounding…”Journey to India” and people responded postitively, they liked it better.  Phew, less heavy.

I find myself drawn to the word grief, not repelled.  Anytime I see a workshop, a book or something on the internet with the word ‘grief’ in the title, my pulse quickens and I get excited to see what it is.  I truly have a passion for grief!  Grief makes me appreciate life more…love more.  My heart has cracked open so more can get in.

“The wound is where the light enters you.”  -Rumi

I don’t know if it’s the word itself or if it’s the fear of the pain that we back away from.  I often notice people backing away from the word grief and changing it to something more palatable, like “loss” or “letting go.”  Grief packs a powerful punch.  Oomph right in the gut…or the heart.  Ask somebody who has lost a loved one and they’ll tell you they’re grieving.  Grief is the word that fits.  After a few years (or months!) our society wants people to be moving on and getting past the loss, i.e. Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

Stephen Jenkinson says:  “Grief and the love of life are twins.”  Two halves that make a whole.  He goes on to say,  “From a young age we see around us that grief is mostly an affliction, a misery that intrudes into the life we deserve, a rupture of the natural order of things, a trauma that we need coping and management and five stages and twelve steps to get over.  Here’s the revolution:  What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught?  What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway?”

If we’re truly living in the moment each day, we are grieving every day as well.  How so?  Well, if I am appreciating the beauty of this moment, with my dog snoring softly on the couch, my daughter sleeping peacefully upstairs, the sun shining through the green willow leaves, I am also aware of the temporal state of this moment.  Everything passes.  Everything dies.  The knowledge that each moment is finite fills me with an ecstatic pleasure as well as an ache to know it will never happen again.  I’m loving life anyway, in spite of loss, because of loss.  In this way, grief has been a life changing gift to me, by giving me a profound appreciation for each moment, knowing that this too shall pass, I will pass.

Summer Poppies come
Summer Poppies come

Often when we lose somebody or something dear to us, we feel compelled to search for the meaning behind the loss.   “What if meaning is not something to find?” Stephen asks.  “Meaning is made by the willingness to proceed.  Life has to continue, not YOU have to continue.  Life is not your life span or your children’s life span.  How about holding the fact that nothing you hold dear lasts.  How about holding that fact close to your bosom?  That’s making meaning of the end of life.”

and go...
and go…

What a difference a year makes

heaven

It’s kind of a personal story…one that is better told through smiles, gestures…tears.  Sitting with a cup of tea and a comfy cushion, a nice blanket to wrap up in, a sheepskin to lie down on…perhaps a few candles burning.  I would tell you this story on a perfect night like this, the wind whooshing through the cottonwood leaves, a dark sky threatening rain, contrasting with the early summer green.  Birds singing their twilight song.

On a cold afternoon on one of the first days of 2012, I lay in my bed daydreaming on the New Moon…making prayers for the new year.  Thinking about what I wanted to call in, to invite, to embrace for the year ahead.  I asked to open my mind to new thought, to higher consciousness, expansion.  I wanted to open my heart to larger love; ways of living, loving, thinking and acting that have been out of reach, beyond my abilities.  I wrote in my journal:  “I know I have called in something bigger than me – I have asked to be opened up and filled.”

Later that year I loved a man in the most intimate way.  It’s hard to describe accurately or to do it justice.  My friend’s husband was dying of a brain tumor.  She asked me to come over and give him Reiki.  I went over to their house and loved him.   That’s what I did.  I loved him the way a mother loves her child – unconditionally and purely.  I let cosmic love pour through me and into him.  I got out of the way.  I was a channel.  I felt filled with love.  I think he did too.  I know he did.  We shared a few intimate hours together over his last few weeks.  On the day he died, I held his hand while he transitioned from consciousness to coma.  I held his feet and felt his spirit take flight – a hawk soaring fast and free.  I lay with him hours after he had passed and stroked his forehead.  Alison and I spent the cool hours of the dark early morning with him – this unseasonably hot June, the June that would bring fire upon fire to our mountains.  We dozed on the bed with him, burned sage, laughed and cried together.  I wrote in my journal how humbled and grateful I was to spend those days with him.  I also wrote that I thought I had found my dharma and how grateful I was to Nancy and Lance for letting me in to their lives so I could share what was longing to be expressed in me – my desire to be of service and for my life to have deeper meaning and purpose.

footsteps

A few days ago, I got a call from my hospice supervisor letting me know a woman was transitioning.  They were asking for volunteers to take turns sitting with her during the day while her family members were at work.  It had been a few months since there had been an opportunity to sit vigil and I jumped at the chance.  First shift.  I’m there.  I have sat with 4 people since Lance died last year.  First I had to go through general training, then a special training to sit vigil.  When my supervisor told me of this new person, she mentioned that this woman was conscious.  This was new.  Something to ponder.  It’s one thing to sit with a stranger that’s dying and they’re unconscious.  But to walk into the room of somebody I’ve never met before, while they’re going through one of the most intimate (if not the most intimate) acts of their life and sit with them…well, this got me nervous.  I prayed as I drove.  I prayed to be of service, to connect with my heart, to just BE.

It’s hard to explain, again, words can’t do this justice.  From the minute I walked into this woman’s room and she locked her blue-gray eyes on me, there was not one second that felt awkward or wrong.  I held her hand.  She didn’t speak but her eyes saw my every move.  I introduced myself and told her I was going to sit with her.  I honored the work she was doing – as she seemed to be laboring – and her body’s wisdom to know when it was time to let go.   I told her she wasn’t alone.   I never know what I will be moved to say or do with any particular person.  It’s different every time.  Sometimes I sit in silent meditation.  We must have “gazed” for over an hour.  It was intimacy on a soul-level.

When I returned the next day for the first shift, I was told that she had just passed.  I went in to see her body and touch her forehead.  As I sat and waited for her family to arrive, I cried.  At first, I was critical of myself…”Stop being so dramatic!  You didn’t even know this woman.  Why are you crying?”  After those thoughts passed, I decided to allow my heart to expand and just feel everything that was surfacing:  the ending of this woman’s life, the shell of her body in front of me, the softness of her gaze from yesterday, the imminent arrival of her loved ones.  The LOVE my own heart could feel for this woman, for the people that cared for her, for the patients in the facility, and for my family.

Today I looked back through my journal and discovered that the day I sat vigil with this woman,  was a year to the day that I first sat with Lance.  If grief is a sprial, then love is concentric circles…rippling out to infinity.  I am truly grateful for this life and for the meaning that I am privileged to have fill my days and the people I am honored to serve.

Grief Spiral

dandy

Grief isn’t linear.  It’s not a straight shot.  You don’t pass through locks in a canal, never to go back, chugging along to what…?  Before?  No.  A land where there is no pain?  No.

I love the metaphor that grief is a spiral, where I circle around, sometimes close to the epicenter (deep pain) and sometimes a bit farther out (awareness of the loss) and sometimes on the outskirts of the spiral (where I can smile at the memories and celebrate the gifts from knowing that person.)  No matter how long it’s been since the death of a loved one, I can be anywhere on the spiral – although I can truthfully say once I’ve experienced the acute phase of a loss, I’ve never gone back to that excruciating grief that feels like it could swallow me up and seems unsurvivable when it’s happening.  I hope that gives people some hope to read that.

Sometimes…I can be grieving and not even realize it.  Recently, life has been feeling so tender and almost unbearable to me.  Spring is late here in Boulder and with Spring comes baby animals.  We’ve got a Mama Raccoon in our attic, right over my bedroom, and her babies make scritchy scratchy sounds and chirp all night long.  I am sleeping in another room because they are so loud!  They sound like they are in the room with us!  Andy is calling them his roomates.  I don’t ordinarily like raccoons, but I am very distressed about these babies.  What to do?  I want them to be relocated, and not euthanized.  But I’m worried they are too young to be moved.  I can barely stand the thought that they will be moved outside… and then what?

Yesterday, we noticed a very small, brand new, baby squirrel up in our tree.  The mama was trying to show it how to scramble through the branches.  Then we noticed a very fat, buff tiger cat (ours) up in the tree, getting ready to pounce on the baby squirrel!  Oh no!  Andy ran out and sprayed the hose on our cat.  This barely distracted her.  Note that it was pouring rain yesterday too.  I was paralyzed with fear that Baby (our horrible cat) was going to kill the squirrel baby, the squirrel baby that isn’t even strong enough, or old enough, to scamper away.  The cat finally came in looking like a drowned rat and she has been locked up under protest all day today.  I’m praying that baby squirrel has enough evolutionary smarts to grow – fast!

As I was unloading my animal woes (my fear of impending death to small, helpless creatures, and my participation on some level with their possible impending deaths) on a friend today, she wondered what is going on for me about death.  “Well” I answered innocently, “a year ago is the time I started working with Lance.”  Hmmm.  As I said it, I realized that is what’s been living in me without me being consciously aware of it.  Two days ago was the 11 month anniversary of Lance‘s death.

Last May, I started giving Lance reiki and spending more time with him.  It was a powerful, life changing month.  It was an  intimate experience that touched me.  I will probably write more about this time, but for now the words escape me.  I am just aware that I am more sensitive than usual and it’s a reminder to go back to the basics of self care; something we teach in the Newly Bereaved groups at hospice.  Drink more water.  Rest.  Get out in nature. Share with close friends – people who will listen and let me be right where I’m at.  Most of all, thanks to my wise friend Sally, I want to BE present with all that I am feeling right now.  I want to witness the sorrow and the tenderness and allow any and all emotions to wash over me.  I might feel things this year that I was too in shock to feel last year.  I can notice the gifts that have come to me in the past year, since knowing Lance, and give thanks for them and for his life.  Gratitude.  And, I’m going to try and help these little animal babies stay alive if I can…

This Aint No Dress Rehearsal!

Pure Joy
Pure Joy

This picture makes me happy – I’ve got my sparkly, Free People dress on.  My favorite color is turquoise and my scarf makes me look like I’m flying, and it’s 4th of July (one of my most favorite days*)  and I’m at the beach!

In Santa Cruz!

So I don’t usually use the word ‘aint’ but it just fits.  I was looking through my journal from the past year.  I am noticing that my journal is a much better resource than it used to be.  I am more discerning about what I write.  I write down my dreams and prayers more than the daily minutiae.  It’s satisfying when I see progress (forward movement) on some of my desires.  For example, last year, I hadn’t completed any hospice training and this year, I volunteer for two local hospice organizations.

In a journal entry from last February, 2012, I wrote:  “At Lili’s School of Rock show there was a little girl who was singing the lead in one of the songs.  She seemed wooden and stone faced.  The little girl in me was dying to grab her mic and belt it out.  I wanted to be the rock star!  All my life!  And I heard a voice in my head saying “This isn’t a dress rehearsal.”  And I got it.  I want to LIVE as if THIS is my LIFE and I’m the STAR and we’re rolling film right NOW!  What would look different?”

Ok, it’s a little embarrassing to share my journal, and yes, I did write all of that and use CAPS for emphasis and all those exclamation points!!!  And I do want to qualify that I don’t really want to be a rock star, I just want to star in my own life.  I want to show up and live each day like it’s not a dress rehearsal.  I know that could sound corny…but here’s the thing…

When you are around people who are dying, especially young people in their 40’s who have lovers and young children, and exciting career possibilities, you start to think about life and the impermanence of it.  The preciousness of it.  When Lance died, one of the messages I got was that I never, ever wanted the people in my life to wonder if I loved them.  I wanted to live each day loving my people and letting them know it.  I also want to celebrate life and hold the knowledge that it doesn’t last forever.  I asked myself in my journal “What would look different?” which is a really juicy question to ask oneself.  What would look different?  The things I can think of right now are I would live by the ocean, I would have a BLUE BUS all tricked out to explore the Golden State of California, I would swim with dolphins more, I would travel in a gypsy caravan of women and children all over the world, dancing, singing, drumming, praying, laughing, loving.  What about you?

My Blue Bus...the Blue Pearl
My Blue Bus…the Blue Pearl

*I always spent it with my grandparents in Narrangansett, Rhode Island, at the beach, with no alcoholic parents to mess it up.

Varanasi – second stop on our India trip

Varanasi, as seen from the Ganges
Varanasi, as seen from the Ganges

“Brace yourself.  You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.  Varanasi takes no prisoners.  But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

-Lonely Planet  INDIA

Also known as the City of Life, this is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities.  Pilgrims come to the ghats (steps leading down into the water) lining the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins and to cremate their loved ones.  To die here, in Varanasi, offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) and it is said that when ashes of ancestors are offered into the Ganges, you are erasing 7 generations of karma from the past and 7 generations of karma in the future.  Powerful stuff.  Before I go to Varanasi, I hope to obtain some ashes of my father’s and release them into the swirling waters of the Ganges.

Lonely Planet goes on to say:  “Most visitors agree it’s a magical place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.  Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats can be overwhelming.  Persevere.  Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river will live long in memory.”

We have such great events planned for Varanasi, including an evening boat ride along the Ganges as well as a sunrise boat ride the following day.  We will be attending a temple aarti (ceremony with song and lamps) and receive a private concert.  My pulse quickens with excitement to visit this holy city.  I know first-hand how surreal India can seem and yet, in the completely unfamiliar and unknown, spirit resides and the veils are thin.  There is absolute potency for amazing experiences in this space of suspended belief.  Can you feel it?