My cell phone rang, and it was Scott. “My dad is septic,” he said. “The doctors are saying that he is probably not going to make it. If you want to see my dad, you need to catch a flight now.”
I hung up the phone and told my 20-year-old son, Owen, the news. Immediately he got online, and within 15 minutes we had three tickets on a 9 am flight to Naples, Florida. The two of us, along with my daughter, Adria, threw clothes in suitcases, called a taxi, and headed to the airport. We arrived in time to get through security and board with 15 minutes to spare.
I vividly remember crying during most of the three-hour airplane ride to Naples knowing that we were going to say good-bye to my father-in-law, Jim Duncan. All I could think of was showering Jim with love.
Upon landing, we headed to the hospital and were greeted by Scott and Jim’s second wife, Mary. There was tension in the air as I quickly learned that for the past two days Jim’s code status had kept changing from DNR/DNI to full code. (The code status DNR, do not resuscitate, and DNI, do not intubate, provided guidelines to the medical staff on how to handle a patient’s care in a life-threatening emergency. Full code means that medical staff take all measures to provide life enhancing treatments.) Mary was struggling with letting Jim go. The medical staff, as well as Scott, looked frustrated.
Given my hospital chaplain experience, I suggested a family conference with the doctors. Within an hour, we all met with the lead medical doctor in the intensive care unit (ICU), who explained that Jim’s body was shutting down. Together, we decided to put Jim on comfort care. (Comfort care includes all measures to provide comfort to a patient with no life-saving treatment plan.)
My immediate family, children, and Scott gathered around Jim’s hospital bed. He was extubated (the breathing tube was removed from his throat), and he opened his eyes briefly and made a little eye contact.
The next hours consisted of showering Jim with love. We all told him, “I love you.” I thanked him for all he had done for our family. He had tears in his eyes.
Jim had never learned unconditional love as a child. His father had died in World War II, when Jim was two years old. His mother was an alcoholic who was not present in his life. Jim spent his entire life seeking love, external recognition, and support. His life looked glamorous from the outside, money, a very successful business, family, but inside of him, there was a lack of love stemming from his early childhood needs that were never addressed.
As an adult, he was a narcissist and an alcoholic, perhaps not surprising given his childhood. Over the 24 years that I had been in the family, Jim often unintentionally pushed others away, and he could be a difficult person to be around.
Yet he deserved and needed to be loved deeply. Love was all that mattered in that time in the cold, austere, ICU room.
I visualized white light and love moving through his body. Jim’s son, Jimmy, arrived, and we all sat vigil around Jim. We shared many family stories around his hospital bed.
He died six hours later, peacefully, with family gathered around him.
Love is what matters, not money, power, or prestige. This is the biggest lesson I learned companioning hundreds of people at the end of life. I heard many patients say in their final days, “All I want is love.” Many patients said or mouthed the words “I love you” to me in their final moments. A felt sense of love was frequently present and palpable.
Love is all that matters. And, we can be conduits of love.
I believe Jim felt love all around him in his final hours, and this helped him peacefully let go. And the palpable sense of love in the room deepened within us, his family, the meaning and power of love.
It is never too late to open to love.