A Cold Case Solved

Like Detective Lilly Rush in the television show Cold Case, I have helped others unearth emotions that have lain unresolved for years and years. This time it was at a social hour taking place in the copious back yard of a mansion in New Hampshire…No no, my husband and I did not sneak in; our ticket to this privilege was making a donation to the Walden School, a summer music composition camp for children and teens. I was talking with one of the parents, and soon after she asked about my career, that gave her her own ticket to revealing an aspect of her mother’s death to me. “I just don’t understand,” she was saying. “Near the end, she was trying to tell me something.” Waiters bearing trays of dainty hors d’oeuvres traipsed by as she started to descend into progressively deeper layers of a mystery that had been haunting her.

I started at the surface, which I often do before making my way down to layer after layer of a person’s concerns to get some clues as to where to go. I also do that to see if they want to go further. If successful, I make it to the core. So I started out with, “What did she say to you?”

Anna [not her real name] replied, “Well she couldn’t speak really. I heard her moan. I could not make out what she wanted.” I moved down a notch with, “Sounds like something was unresolved there.” I waved away a tray laden with tinted glasses of pink lemonade as she elaborated, “I felt so bad; I did not know what her last wishes were.” For her, the mansion, the trays, the other people forming clusters on the lawn like grapes on a vine, had ceased their social demands. Her absorption in this intimate matter gave me permission to dig around the core: “Maybe we will never know what she had intended, but what would you guess she was after? What did she need? What do you think you provided her?” As tears came, I knew I had uncovered the core, that tender center of helplessness and love. Anna said, “I think she wanted to be hugged.” A pause, enough for one solid breath. Almost in unison we said to each other, “She might have felt isolated and afraid. She wanted to be comforted, to simply know that you were there, beside her.”

The party came back into existence as she swiftly removed herself from that vulnerable core, perhaps for Anna to approach again when she could be safely alone with her thoughts and emotions. Later one of those clusters comprised of a few “grapes” including me, were seated on steps leading down to the lawn. She saw us, paused to join in, but did not accept my invitation to sit alongside us. As the chit-chat skidded upon this and that pleasing topic, however, I found that she had sat down after all. Her irritation at my pressing against a painful spot had subsided, but I am sure the reawakened anger and regrets surrounding her mother’s death would not be so short-lived.


9 thoughts on “A Cold Case Solved

  1. Liz Adams says:

    Karen, this is so true. The work of the hospice chaplain is far from over when the patient dies, since the survivors still carry some heavy issues. And if they are lucky enough to encounter a chaplain like you, they get help for months longer!


  2. Karen, your post touched me,and I’ll bet many others’, “vulnerable core.” A vivid and touching story, and one that has made me vow to never pass up an opportunity to give a hug. Thanks for the reminder that we all could use a little more comforting.


  3. L.W. says:

    I, too, will always wonder about the moaning right before the end.
    My fear is that my mother heard me asking a nurse to move her to a hospice. My mother was adamant about staying at home, but I could not bear to watch her die in pain, and in-home hospice + 24/7 aides were not preventing that.
    Residential hospice experience was a great relief – for me, but my mother may have felt I let her down.


    • Not only does this sound like a distressing memory, but one that keeps distressing you anew. (Distress, like certain gifts, keeps on giving.) Thus you may feel you traded short term relief for long term guilt. If I may make a few remarks, which I hope will soften that guilt: First, when a dying person moans, it could mean most anything. Was it wanting to go to the bathroom? Was it not wanting to die? Was it a bad dream or memory? Second, a dying person sometimes is unaware of their surroundings or whether it is day or night, so she might even have still thought she was home. A residential hospice, at least, is more home-like than say, a hospital. Most importantly, she might have sensed that through your love, you exercised the best judgment that truly avoiding “letting her down.” Of course there may be deeper levels to this, such as the perception of having let her down in the past or vice versa.

      As you name your feelings as guilt, and find sympathetic ears to listen to you in more detail, I hope that you will eventually find a way to come to peace with what happened, putting it in the context of the entire span of your relationship to your mother.


      • L.W. says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful words.
        I wish more people were aware of the benefits of residential hospice….seems to be a dirty-little-secret that management of pain with in-home hospice is often not adequate.
        Residential hospice was quite a relief – for me, but it’s expensive if not covered by insurance. My mother’s oncologist did not want to discuss it. I’m guessing that’s because Medicare/insurance doesn’t cover it unless at-home care is impossible and doctors may not recommend it for that reason. (It might require effort on their part.)
        Fortunately, there is an MD/hospice chaplain in my father’s nursing home who will spare him/me from reliving a similar experience.
        She is very wise and very kind. Like you.


  4. Distress: the gift that keeps on giving. You are so spot on with that.


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