To paraphrase the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, the death of each of my patients is lived twice: once in current time and once in memory. Some of my memories of patients are intensely vivid, as if they were shot in high-definition video. Other memories are blurry because I must have subconsciously deleted or altered them.
I do remember their faces. And, the faces of family members, especially that “look of waiting.” Waiting for an improvement, waiting for a decline, waiting for the end.
In the past, we had to wait for many things: the news to arrive at our doorstep, the mercury to rise or fall in a thermometer, letters from overseas, a turkey roasting in the oven, the fifth course in a meal, the phone to ring, a tape to rewind . . .
But in today’s culture, we have a hard time waiting. Sure technological innovation has brought about amazing changes in our lives. We can pretty much do anything, anywhere, anytime. But in the process we’ve relinquished the art of waiting.
And if waiting is a lost art, then will all the thoughts that took place during waiting also get lost? Will the personal preparation and the pre-mourning for those that are dying also disappear?
Most of my time with patients’ families is taken up with helping them learn how to wait. I provide them with tools and techniques to help prepare for the end, to create meaning during this “in between” time of life and death.
Learning to wait, to be patient, teaches us to stay calm, to stay focused on the bigger picture, to look at our relationship with the person who is dying as well as our own lives—what we need and want to do. It keeps us focused. It keeps us compassionate.
At the end of the day, tending to the dying has very much to do with rediscovering the art of waiting.