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Turning the Chaos of Dying Into Calm

Getty Images / Bromberger Hoover Photography

Turning the Chaos of Dying Into Calm

In the last moments of your life, who will be with you? If you're lucky, it will be somebody like Bob Shea.

Bob is a Comfort Care volunteer for Chicago's Rainbow Hospice, and though his job is very simple, it's one most people say they could never do. When a patient is actively dying, Bob is called to sit by their bedside. And in most cases, what he does is as plain as that – he sits. He may talk to the family or the dying patient, but his primary goal is to be still and bring calm to a chaotic situation.

The first question on most people's lips when they learn how many deaths Bob has witnessed is, "Isn't that depressing?" But his answer to that is no, quite the opposite: "It just charges my batteries. It inspires me to be able to be there with people in their passing, when they're taking that last journey. It affirms everything in my experience. I love doing it."

What makes Bob react so differently from most people? He's been in that hospice bed. In 2002, Bob was in intensive care with Guillain-Barré syndrome. His doctors expected him to die – he was given 24 hours. But Bob defied expectations and lived, and though his recovery was long and arduous, he's still here today, with a new outlook on life that's led him to cherish the hospice work that many others can't bring themselves to do.

I asked Bob what his work as a Comfort Care volunteer entails, and he explained that it begins when a patient enters the "actively dying" stage, for which there is a variety of indicators: low blood pressure, accelerating or decreasing heartbeat, fixed eyes. Bob is called by the hospice when they perceive that a patient is actively dying, and when he arrives, he greets the patient – who is often unresponsive – and any family or caregivers who might be present. Then he begins to bring stillness to the room.

This can be more difficult than it sounds. In fact, Bob says, "(Doing nothing) is the toughest thing I've ever had to learn how to do." Even in the simplest of scenarios, there are always stimuli pulling at us and prompting us to act, and the scenarios Bob is in are far from simple. As they see their loved one's life nearing its end, family and friends can become upset and agitated. And, as Bob notes, they struggle with their inability to understand and control the situation.

"Chaos comes from the ego, which wants to know and wants to control," he says. "You'll see family members desperately trying to control the situation. They'll ask me, 'Well, how long?' My answer is always, 'It's their party; they can do whatever they want. There is no set timetable.' And so that's where the chaos comes from. I can't know and I can't control and my ego is in chaos."

Bob's goal is to change that through his stillness: "It's my job to just come in and be still. And let them feel that energy of just being still." He can't tell them exactly what's going to happen, and he can't help them control the situation, but he can help them let go of those needs – the needs to know and to control.

He points out the scriptural significance of stillness: "In the Tao that was written 2,500 years ago in China, it says, 'The muddiest water will become clear if allowed to be still.' In the Bible, it says, 'Be still and know that I am God.'" It's long been known that a chaotic mind can find calm when it's allowed to be still – that's why we do things like deep breathing techniques to calm ourselves down.

Bob brings a similar concept to Comfort Care, trying to help the dying through their journey as gently as possible while bringing calm to their loved ones. To truly understand just how effective and important his stillness is, Bob tells the story of a death he witnessed. He calls the story "Dancing With Louise."

"One afternoon, I was just coming out of a home where the mother was dying, and I got a call. The chaplain had just called about this mother and daughter. The mother was actively dying, and the chaplain was terrified that the daughter was going to have a nervous breakdown. She had not slept in 48 hours. She was just so strung out and tight. The chaplain said, 'I am really worried that she is going to snap when her mother passes.'

"So they asked me, around four in the afternoon, if there was any chance I could go over to be with this woman and her daughter. I said sure. So I drove over and the daughter let me in. She was just as tight as a piano wire. I told her, 'You know, 85 percent of the reason I come is for the family. You're the one that does the heavy lifting. It's the family that needs the hug.' And she said, 'I DON'T WANT A HUG. I've already had enough hugs. I don't want a hug.'

"I smiled and said, 'Well, I didn't actually mean that literally, but OK. I've got it. No hug. Why don't we go in and I can meet your mother.'

"She brought me in, and her mother was clearly actively dying. Unresponsive. So I just pulled up a chair next to the bed. I always introduce myself and talk to them. When I was unresponsive, I could hear. So I tell them why I'm there and what my name is. And then I sat down … and I did nothing.

"The daughter was buzzing around like a bee and checking things, and she kept looking at me, like what's he doing? I just sat quietly, looking at the mother. Finally, she said, 'Well, I'm getting something to eat.' I said, 'OK. That's fine.'

"I saw her leave, but her head came peeking back around the corner, like what is he doing? I was doing nothing. So I heard dishes rattling, and then she came back in and she was checking everything. Her ego was so in need of knowing and controlling. But it was unnerving for her because I was just sitting there, doing nothing.

"I finally said to her, 'You know, it could be a long evening. Maybe you just want to go lie down and put your feet up for a while.'

"She said, 'I'd never sleep.'

"I said, 'No, I didn't think you would, but what if you would just kind of relax for a few minutes? It'll put you in a better position to do the things you're going to need to do.'

"She said, 'Well, maybe you're right.' So she brought me and showed me the door to the room that she was going to be in, and she said, 'Knock if you need anything.'

"The door closed, and I went back and sat with Louise. And within five minutes, I could hear the snoring. She was sound asleep.

"I looked over and I saw that there was a CD player. There were CDs from Louise's era – Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey. So I just said, 'Louise, come on, let's have some fun.' I started playing CDs. The only way I could describe it to somebody else is that Louise and I spent the night dancing to this wonderful music.

"I finally put on Bing Crosby, and the minute the first song started to play, I heard her breathing. I was like, 'Ah. She likes Bing Crosby.' And on the third song, Louise took her last breath.

"I waited and made sure, and as I went to turn to get her daughter, I stopped and turned, and I said, 'Louise, thank you for a wonderful evening.' At that moment, this wonderful rush of energy came up from my feet, and the words to describe it that hit me at the time were 'Christmas season Champagne.' It was just a celebration.

"With that, I went and knocked on the door and the daughter came out, all surprised – 'I can't believe I fell asleep.' I was, again, just being still. I just said, 'OK, now we need to go in and say goodbye to your mom.'

"She said, 'Really?' And I explained to her what a wonderful evening we had had, and I said, 'So come in.' So we walked in, and she looked. She said, 'You're sure?' I said, 'Yes.'

"She again asked me a few questions, how she was, and I said, 'By the way, your mom really likes Bing Crosby.'

"The daughter's mouth fell open. She said, 'How did you know that?'

"I said, 'Oh. That's the song that she passed on.'

"So we called hospice, and the nurse came out and gave the official time of death and called the undertakers to come get Louise. And at that point, told the daughter, 'Well, I'm going to go home now and get something to eat. But your mother is so proud of you. You did such a wonderful job.'

"She got a big smile on her face, and then she gave me a hug. Even though she said she didn't need any hugs, she gave me a hug."