06/27/17

The Symptoms of Dying

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You and I, one day we’ll die from the same thing. We’ll call it different names: cancer, diabetes, heart failure, stroke.

One organ will fail, then another. Or maybe all at once. We’ll become more similar to each other than to people who continue living with your original diagnosis or mine.

Dying has its own biology and symptoms. It’s a diagnosis in itself. While the weeks and days leading up to death can vary from person to person, the hours before death are similar across the vast majority of human afflictions.

Some symptoms, like the death rattle, air hunger and terminal agitation, appear agonizing, but aren’t usually uncomfortable for the dying person. They are well-treated with medications. With hospice availability increasing worldwide, it is rare to die in pain.

While few of us will experience all the symptoms of dying, most of us will have at least one, if not more. This is what to expect.

The Death Rattle

“The graves are full of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles” (Pablo Neruda)

We suspected the patient wouldn’t survive off the ventilator. A blood clot had crawled up one of the vessels in the back of his brain, blocking blood flow to the area that controlled alertness. He would die from not being awake enough to cough.

The beat of the death rattle began when the breathing tube was removed and continued until life was done. It was a gurgling, crackling sound, like blowing air through a straw at the bottom of a cup of water. The average time between the onset of death rattles to death itself is 16 hours. For him, it was six.

The death rattle is a symptom of swallowing dysfunction. Normally, our tongue rises to the top of the mouth and propels saliva, liquid or food backward. The epiglottis, a flap in the throat, flops forward to protect the swallowed substance from entering the airway.

In the dying process, the symphony of swallowing becomes a cacophony of weak and mistimed movements. Sometimes the tongue propels saliva backward before the epiglottis has time to cover the airway. Other times, the tongue fails to push at all and saliva trickles down the airway to the lungs in a steady stream. The death rattle is the lungs’ attempt to breathe through a layer of saliva.

Despite the sound’s alarming roughness, it’s unlikely that the death rattle is painful. The presence of a death rattle doesn’t correlate with signs of respiratory distress.

As often happens in medicine, we treat based on intuition. To lessen the volume of the death rattle, we give medications that decrease saliva production. Sometimes, we are successful in silencing the rattle. More of the time, we placate our instinctive concern for a noise that probably sounds worse than it feels. Without hurting our patients, we treat the witnesses who will go on living.

Air Hunger

“You villain touch! What are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat” (Walt Whitman)

The patient was a wiry woman in her 80s who had smoked for seven decades. Cigarettes turned her lungs from a spongelike texture to billowing plastic bags that collapsed on themselves when she exhaled. It was like trying to scrunch all the air out of a shopping bag. Air got trapped.

Air hunger — the uncomfortable feeling of breathing difficulty — is one of the most common end-of-life symptoms that doctors work to ease.

The treatment? Opiates, usually morphine.

People sometimes ask why the treatment for painful breathing is a medication that can depress breathing. You’d guess that opiates would worsen air hunger.

The answer hinges on defining why air hunger is uncomfortable in the first place.

Some researchers think the discomfort of air hunger is from the mismatch between the breathing our brain wants and our lungs’ ability to inflate and deflate. Opiates provide relief because they tune our brain’s appetite for air to what our body can provide. They take the “hunger” out of “air hunger.”

Others believe that the amount of morphine needed to relieve air hunger may have little effect on our ability to breathe. Since air hunger and pain activate similar parts of the brain, opiates may simply work by muting the brain’s pain signals.

The patient traded her cigarettes for a breathing mask when she came to the hospital. She quit smoking for the umpteenth time and made plans to go home and live independently again. A few days later, her thin frame tired. She died in hospice.

Terminal Agitation

“Do not go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas)

My grandfather screamed two days before he died. “Open that door and let me out! Right now! It’s a travesty! Open that door!”

It was the scream of a lost child. My grandfather’s eyebrows, which had been lost over the years from the outside inward so that only a centimeter of long gray hairs near the middle remained, tilted toward each other.

Until then, we were preparing for missing and absence. Not for an agitated delirium. Not for rage.

A famous poet once wrote that “dying is an art, like everything else.” For hospice doctors, the artists of death, terminal agitation is the subject’s revolt against the shaper. It’s uncommon, but it can be difficult to watch when it happens.

Instead of peacefully floating off, the dying person may cry out and try to get out of bed. Their muscles might twitch or spasm. The body can appear tormented.

There are physical causes for terminal agitation like urine retention, shortness of breath, pain and metabolic abnormalities. There are medications that quell it. Yet it’s hard to discount the role of the psyche and the spiritual.

People who witness terminal agitation often believe it is the dying person’s existential response to death’s approach. Intense agitation may be the most visceral way that the human body can react to the shattering of inertia. We squirm and cry out coming into the world, and sometimes we do the same leaving it.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/25/17

End-of-life care: when CPR is wrong

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Pursuing treatment a person has declined represents questionable ethical practice

CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest, but it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness.

The modern intensive care unit offers a wide range of life support mechanisms so that even the sickest person with multi-organ failure can be kept alive. Parallel to this, the media, and television in particular, has removed any veil of secrecy that may have existed about emergency and intensive care medicine. But it may also have raised expectations to an unreasonable level, with evidence to show that the public perception of the role of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is not a realistic one.

The inappropriate use of CPR in certain end-of-life situations has been highlighted recently in medical literature. CPR is the appropriate response when someone has a cardiac arrest. However it has no role in the patient who slips away naturally at the end of a long illness. Senior clinicians have expressed concern that doctors who are called at the time of death feel they have no authority to withhold CPR, or they fear the legal risks of doing so – even where CPR is clearly pointless. As a result, patients with terminal cancer or end stage dementia are being vigorously resuscitated rather than allowed to die naturally.

However, this newspaper has uncovered another questionable aspect of end-of-life care. Responding to recent column, readers have described how patients who had clearly and formally indicated they did not wish to be resuscitated were in fact given CPR. In most cases, the treatment failed, but relatives are being traumatised – firstly by having their concerns pushed aside and then seeing their loved one’s body bruised and broken as a result of vigorous CPR.

In some cases this is happening despite having properly drawn-up advanced care directives present in the patient’s chart. In addition, many charts have DNACPR (do not attempt CPR) stickers prominently displayed on their front covers.

Whatever about the legality of ignoring a patient’s wishes in this way, pursuing treatment the person has declined represents questionable ethical professional practice. Healthcare regulators must take steps to address this breach of trust as a matter of urgency.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/24/17

Many faith leaders are unprepared to help people make peace with death

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Rabbi Laura Geller addresses a room of participants at Temple Emanuel’s conference, “The Next Stage: Looking Backwards and Ahead,” on November 9, 2014.

Confronting sickness and death is part of a faith leader’s job description. Members of the clergy sit with congregants during chemotherapy treatments and pray with them in the midst of pain.

Pastors prepare for this work at seminary, spending a semester working as a hospital chaplain or volunteering at a nursing home. However, some still enter professional ministry unprepared to sit at someone’s bedside and offer advice, according to recent research on religion and end-of-life care.

Many faith leaders are uncertain of when aggressive treatments should be traded for hospice care and confused about what palliative treatments consist of, reports a study in the April issue of the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

Seven in 10 clergy members say it is “somewhat” or “quite a bit” important for them to encourage ongoing treatment for a cancer patient, even when a doctor says there is no hope for a cure, notes a new study in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

This research, as well as other findings from The National Clergy Project on End-of-Life Care, points to a need for ongoing education, according to health experts.

“Poor knowledge of end-of-life care may lead clergy to passively enable congregants with serious illness to pursue … treatments that are associated with increased suffering,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

The National Clergy Project is part of Harvard University’s Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality. Program leaders are working on a free end-of-life care curriculum to empower faith leaders, highlighting the important role religion often plays at the end of people’s lives.

“What clergy say — and what they do not say — can make a major difference in whether believers experience a ‘good death,'” the Association of Religion Data Archives reported in its overview of recent research.

Increasingly, palliative care, which focuses on providing pain relief rather than a cure, is seen as a key part of dying well, yet many people, including pastors, find it difficult to give up on intense or invasive treatments.

Accepting that a cure isn’t possible “may be perceived as a decision that undermines one’s faith in a God who may intervene with a miracle through medical treatment,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

These researchers and other experts at The National Clergy Project on End-of-Life Care don’t want to undermine religious beliefs. But they do want to ensure that faith leaders are informed about medical options before they influence a patient’s decisions.

“Our goal is for patients and families facing difficult medical decisions to receive better spiritual and medical care,” the project website notes.

Around 3 in 4 faith leaders are open to training on end-of-life care, recent research showed.

In addition to seeking out insights from medical professionals, members of the clergy may benefit from organizing conversations about death and dying within their communities. Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, has done this as part of a broader effort to understand what people at her synagogue fear as they near retirement.

“The conversations were so rich and powerful that nobody wanted them to end,” she told the Deseret News last year.

Initial small-group discussions on life after retirement grew into a communitywide effort to better serve the needs of older synagogue members. People thought through how to emotionally and spiritually grow even as their bodies aged and illnesses loomed, Rabbi Geller said.

“How do you make meaning in the face of the fact that you’re going to die? That’s what faith communities are supposed to be teaching people,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/23/17

I’m Dying Up Here: Books on How to Grieve and How to Die

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I’m never going to die. I’m sorry I can’t say the same for you. My role models for how to do death are Jesus and Wile E. Coyote. Yours are other dead people. However, because I’m never going to die, I’m super comfortable with the entire topic, and the fact that I’m late turning in this column on books about death and dying has nothing to do with avoiding the subject.

So an author who suggests the dead are not howling in the abyss but rather hanging out in what she imagines as a pretty “waiting area” — well, that’s an author who’s easy for me to love. Theresa Caputo’s television show, “Long Island Medium,” has been a mainstay on TLC, and in GOOD GRIEF: Heal Your Soul, Honor Your Loved Ones, and Learn to Live Again (Atria, $25.99), Caputo (with her co-writer, Kristina Grish) wants us to know what she has learned from all those years of channeling the dead: “It’s their greatest hope that you learn to heal and carry on.” The dead — or Spirit, as she calls them — are quite chatty and opinionated. Among the things Spirit wants you to know:

Your relationship with your loved one isn’t over; it has merely changed. (Even if the loved one can’t drive you to the airport, if you ask nicely Spirit might “help you get a cab.”) You can let your feelings rule you for short periods of time, but “you must also take active steps to heal.” (Spirit doesn’t like whiners.) When it’s your time, it’s (usually) your time, or at least in the “destiny window” of time. Caputo has a host of practical, rather adorable ideas for honoring Spirit, which often involve giving gifts to others in Spirit’s name.

After a while it occurred to me that if the departed behaved in the loving way Caputo describes, I would like them more when they were dead than when they were alive. No matter; I am entirely agnostic, and still found this book comforting and quite touching. I felt oddly close to my own dead parents as I read along.

Those whose loss is more recent may prefer a less warm and fuzzy approach — more of a “what can I do to get on with my life right now?” book. Resilience is a hot topic these days, and Lucy Hone has written a book about bereavement reflecting both her own research and her own grief. RESILIENT GRIEVING: Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything (The Experiment, paper, $15.95) begins with Hone’s own tragedy: In 2014, her 12-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident. Hone shows us how to harness the (thankfully common) power of our own resilience to work our way through a horrible loss.

Resilience is not a shield against suffering, Hone suggests. It enables us to feel and to move through emotions like pain and guilt so that we can continue to feel alive and experience happiness. Hone does not buy into the idea that you just feel your feelings and take all the time in the world; what if, like Hone herself, you have other kids at home, a demanding job, and an urgent need to function in the real world? Hone offers concrete strategies for regaining your equilibrium even in the greatest pain. Among them: Choosing where to focus your attention (not on hating someone or something, which consumes energy); taking your time with the body of the one you love (there is no mad rush to bury or memorialize beloved); and re-establish routines, particularly if you have children, who may need that structure even more than you do.

Despite her insistence to the contrary, there is a strong whiff of “just-get-on-with-it” matter-of-factness that may be a little beyond some of us. Patrick O’Malley’s GETTING GRIEF RIGHT: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss (Sounds True, paper, $16.95), co-written by Tim Madigan, is for those of us made of less stern stuff. O’Malley was trained as a counselor, but when he lost his infant son, and he tried to work through the famous Kübler-Ross stages of grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance — he felt like a failure. Grief was not linear; it was more of an oscillation. O’Malley wanted to talk about his son, to tell others who his son was, even in the few months he was on this earth. He began to see the wisdom of the writer Isak Dinesen, who noted, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”

O’Malley gives us the tools to tell the story of the deceased: favorite memories, when he or she was happiest and saddest, how you learned about the death, and so forth. Different kinds of loss bring different stories, and different kinds of pain. Telling the story of how you loved and how you lost gives shape and meaning to what first seems to be a meaningless, uncontrollable event.

For a compelling argument for why we have to rethink the wisdom of end-of-life “heroics,” there is EXTREME MEASURES: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life (Avery, $27). The author, Jessica Nutik Zitter, is a physician who specializes in both critical care medicine and palliative care, the yin and yang of medicine. Critical care specialists are taught to save lives with all the technology and machinery at their disposal. Palliative care specialists need the opposite skill set: They have to know how to help a dying person let go. Zitter is trained in both.

Of course, it was not always thus. Dr. Zitter describes her first Code Blue as a resident. She rushes into the room to heroically save the patient, and instead she is asked to resuscitate someone who is clearly dead, or should be. “With each compression, there is a sickening click, which I don’t recognize until I hear someone next to me whisper, ‘His whole chest is breaking,’” she writes. “This man is dead.”

The patient stays dead. But in that moment Zitter realizes that there must be a better way to depart this earth. She also discusses how palliative care can respond to many of the most painful symptoms of dying in a way that care geared toward prolonging life cannot. And why, at the end of life, less is often more compassionate. Like Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” Zitter’s book shows how knowing when to do nothing is as vital to being a good doctor as knowing when to do everything.

As compared to the more philosophical “Extreme Measures,” John Abraham’s HOW TO GET THE DEATH YOU WANT: A Practical and Moral Guide (Upper Access, paper, $14.95) is exactly as nuts and bolts as it sounds. Abraham, a thanatologist and Episcopal priest, writes extensively about advance directives and how to ensure your wishes are abided by; and then, he tells us the least painful and messy ways to go. It may not be easy to read about these methods, but they affirm the idea expressed by a popular button worn by Abraham and other members of the Final Exit Network — “Let me die like a dog” — because anyone who has ever had to euthanize a beloved pet knows how painless and peaceful death can be. Those of us who fear loss of control of our lives more than we fear death will find Abraham’s book edifying. I even appreciate the phrase he uses instead of assisted suicide; he prefers “deliberate life completion.”

Knowing Nina Riggs died shortly after writing THE BRIGHT HOUR: A Memoir of Living and Dying (Simon & Schuster, $25), the story of her experience with metastatic breast cancer, makes this moving and often very funny memoir almost unbearable to read. But that’s because it is not one bromide after the other. It is true, and it might crush you. There is one moment here that says everything about how lonely you can feel when you’ve been told you have a disease. It’s past midnight, and Riggs and her husband are lying in bed: “‘I just can’t wait for things to get back to normal,’ says John from his side of the moon.” Riggs realizes there may not be a “normal” anymore, and reacts with anger, and a growing resolve that we all wish we could achieve: “Thinking that way kind of invalidates my whole life right now. I have to love these days in the same way I love any other.”

I’ll just say this: You can read a multitude of books about how to die, but Riggs, a dying woman, will show you how to live.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/19/17

This Nursing Professor Is On a Quest to Improve End-of-Life Care, Worldwide

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Nursing professor Cathy Campbell aims to expand palliative care practices in places around the world where it’s existed only informally.

By Christine Phelan Kueter

Each week, as she sits at the bedside of dying patients, University of Virginia nursing professor Cathy Campbell remembers the bad old days of end-of-life care during her early nursing practice in the mid-1980s.

Staff didn’t know how to treat patients, their bodies addled by pain and disease, and treatment had less to do with pain management than with beating back deadly illnesses, she recalled. Even for patients who were moments from passing away, there was great reluctance to offer relief with drugs like morphine and Demerol, so as not “to hasten death.” But death in hospital intensive care units, with wires and tubes snaking from patients’ every orifice, was painfully common.

“There was always this great tension between compassionate care and the cure, the cure, the cure,” said Campbell, recollecting her early years as a nurse in a Florida Veterans Administration hospital, “and at that point palliative care wasn’t very good, and the things we did to patients weren’t very good for them, either.”

While the memories still smart, Campbell’s relieved when she considers the expanse of modern palliative care, and the growing understanding that “there is such a thing as a good death.”

But drugs and technologies aside, palliative care remains rooted in compassionate presence. That might mean that light chit-chat, passing ice to the bedridden, or quietly holding a griever’s hand. It also might mean answering loved ones’ frank and probing questions – What does death look like? How do you know if he’s in pain? Does she know we’re here at all? – or recommending medication adjustments for pain, based upon observed distress.

Many times, though, Campbell’s just there, palms up, offering herself as a witness and a comfort.

“This is what I want to do, where I want to be,” said Campbell, a nurse for 31 years and a palliative care scholar for 25. “The day of death is one day, but there are a lot of other days to provide support in between.”

But if palliative care has more recently expanded into America’s consciousness, beyond our borders its practice is spotty at best, and absent at worse. That absence is felt most acutely in the world’s poorest, most rural regions where chronic illness and death from diseases like HIV and AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis are common.

In many areas, palliative care is anemic due to too few providers. In South Africa, for instance, the patient-nurse ratio is 417-to-1, a reality that pushes many tasks onto community health workers who provide the majority of rural patients’ care. Among those workers – local individuals, some trained, who do home visits and provide a conduit to nurses in charge of vast geographic territories and literally thousands of patients – palliative care knowledge is even less common.

Most community health workers have basic training in bathing and turning bed-ridden patients; perhaps know how to take vital signs, like blood pressure and pulse; and may, too, know something about vectors of disease transmission for some of the region’s most deadly diseases, including tuberculosis and HIV. But palliative care, Campbell said, is “learned on the fly,” even as it’s an increasingly robust part of their job.

Those gaps in knowledge are due to the fact that palliative care concepts haven’t become fully integrated into overseas’ nursing curricula. It all adds up to a perfect storm, Campbell said, even in this era when the World Health Organization has declared access to palliative care “a human right.”

Given these twin realities, Campbell said, a movement to buttress community health workers’ education, skills and reach is afoot, and Campbell is in the thick of the march. She just received a two-year Fulbright Scholarship to augment the bare-bones understanding of palliative care as it exists in two rural provinces of South Africa and Thailand, and how best to broaden it with the support of community health workers.

Campbell’s years of work as a faculty mentor and researcher at UVA’s Center for Global Health have provided invaluable insight into the many issues and tremendous potential of community health workers in rural communities. This summer, Campbell will mentor a team, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Venda, of Center for Global Health University Scholars for a fourth year of longitudinal research on community health worker engagement in community care.

With the Fulbright, Campbell and her UVA research assistants will conduct focus groups with 60 rural community health workers across Thailand and South Africa to discuss the cases they see and document how they handle them, in order to determine what types of educational and training programs make the most sense. Their ultimate aim is to expand palliative care practices in places where it’s existed only informally.

Campbell has already observed community health workers’ appetite for training in palliative care in particular – “they’re eager for it,” she reports – and in many cases, the most experienced and seasoned workerss are likely to receive training and education and then return to their peers to train them.

Community health workers, Campbell said, are the linchpin to expanding developing nations’ palliative care reach into the rural communities that need it.

“We can train CHWs to do more, because they’re really the ones doing the work,” Campbell said. “They’re a community treasure.”

Complete Article HERE!

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06/14/17

When a Pet Dies, Helping Children Through the ‘Worst Day of Their Lives’

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Reading age-appropriate books about a pet’s death, like this one for ages 4 to 8, may be helpful in getting a child over the grief.

The loss of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death. Understanding the unique ways that children view pets and respond to their passing can help parents to ease the grieving process.

Joshua Russell, an assistant professor of environmental science at Canisius College in Buffalo, who has studied the effects of pet loss in children, explained that for many children, pets are more than just animals. “Many kids describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections,” he said.

In a study of 12 children ages 6 to 13 who had lost a pet, published in the journal Environmental Education Research, Dr. Russell found that even years after the pet’s death, some children still described the loss as “the worst day of their lives.” He also discovered that children come up with unique ways to rationalize their pet’s passing and that the way a pet dies influences how children grieve.

“Children, in particular, have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” Dr. Russell said.

Like adults, children more readily accepted their pet’s death when it was expected in some way. For example, children were less affected when they knew in advance that the animal would have a short life span. They seemed to know that a fish or hamster, for instance, would not live as long as a dog or cat. When an animal was sick, they generally agreed that euthanasia relieved the pet of its suffering. If an animal is terminally ill, parents can help prepare the child by talking about the impending loss, as well as the feelings of sadness it will evoke.

This book is written for children ages 8 to 13.

Yet when pets died in tragic and unexpected ways, the loss was harder for the child to accept. “When a pet dies suddenly, it highlights the unpredictability of the world. It tells children that the people and animals they love can die without warning,” said Abigail Marks, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in childhood grief.

Of course, a child’s age and developmental level affect how he or she understands death, and a child’s grief looks very different from an adult’s. Children do not always cry or immediately show emotion. But this does not mean they are not deeply affected by the loss.

“Kids under the age of 5 will have a hard time understanding that the pet is gone forever because it’s difficult for them to grasp the concept of death,” said Jessica Harvey, a psychotherapist in San Francisco who specializes in pet grief.

One way young children may express their grief is through play. After the loss of a pet, they may pretend, for example, that a stuffed cat or dog became ill and passed away. Parents can help their children through the grieving process by actively participating in this type of imaginary play.

Reading age-appropriate books about pet death may also be helpful. “Goodbye, Brecken,” by David Lupton, for children ages 4 to 8; “Kate, the Ghost Dog: Coping With the Death of a Pet,” by Wayne L. Wilson, for ages 8 to 13; and “Memories of You,” by Erainna Winnett, for ages 7 to 12, are some examples.

School-age children will often have questions about the animal’s death, and the back-and-forth that ensues may open up larger conversations about love, loss and what happens after we die. When telling a school-age child about a pet’s death, Dr. Marks recommends being honest about what happened. Doing so lets a child know that it is not taboo to talk about death or painful feelings, which can set the stage to process other sorts of loss in the future. Parents should also validate any emotions that arise as the child mourns.

She said that a child’s grief would ebb and flow; they may cry one minute and then resume playing or talking about other things the next minute. Parents should be more concerned if a child has nightmares, increased anxiety or difficulty sleeping. If these symptoms persist, psychological counseling may help.

…and of course, our personal favorite.

Dr. Marks said it was also important for parents to follow their child’s lead. “If they are asking about the details of the pet’s death, it’s a sign that they want to talk about it,” she said. “They are looking for your comfort.”

For many children, it is also important to have a goodbye ritual. “Rituals around death are some of the most meaningful ways we have of recognizing someone’s life, but these ceremonies aren’t societally defined for pet death,” Dr. Marks said. Families can create their own rituals, like having a small memorial service, scattering the pet’s ashes, planting a remembrance tree or creating a photo album.

“This is a way to process the loss and to honor the role that the pet had in your family,” Dr. Marks said.

Complete Article HERE!

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06/12/17

Dying at home: What I learned from my husband’s death

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Dr. Donald Low, centre, confers in the lab at the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care about the results of the Legionella outbreak at Seven Oaks Home for the Aged in 2005.

By

The night my husband died, I slept beside his corpse in our bed. All night. This wasn’t exactly by choice: the funeral home did not retrieve bodies after 8 p.m., and there was no other bed available for me to sleep in, as all our children were home to help care for their father.

I tell this story whenever I discuss the realities of dying at home. Even as a physician assistant, I did not appreciate the challenges — or the immense rewards — of caring for my husband at home until his death.

According to a 2014 Harris/Decima survey, of those Canadians who express a preference for where they want to die, 75 per cent say they want to die at home, surrounded by loved ones. Interestingly, another Canadian study found that those loved ones aren’t quite as keen on the experience: half of the patients who said they wanted to die at home had family members who hoped the death would take place in an institution, like a palliative care unit. No matter: The majority (about 65 per cent) die in a hospital, which isn’t anybody’s first choice.

The palliative care and hospice community often use this data to advocate for more government funding of community supports, such as personal support workers, to help people die at home. And they’re right that home care and palliative care access is too uneven across Canada and in urgent need of more funding.

But what we don’t understand is how many of these hospitalizations at the end of life could be diverted with more nursing, more personal support workers, more respite for family caregivers. I believe that without better education around what’s involved in dying at home, extra resources won’t be enough.

Dying is messy. It shouldn’t have to be painful anymore, though in some cases, only deep sedation can relieve the worst pain. But pain aside, there is no getting around the progressive weakness, the loss of appetite, the fluctuating level of consciousness, the need for diapers or a catheter, and eventually, the shallow, laboured breathing. None of this has to be distressing for the patient, who can, if needed, be heavily drugged or even sedated. But it can be extremely distressing for family members to witness, and it can go on for days and, in some cases, weeks.

When I worked as a physician assistant in the emergency department, I saw many patients brought in by ambulance in those last stages of their disease. When I spoke to the family members, it was often clear they were overwhelmed by very predictable symptoms. But no one had laid it all out for them before. They weren’t looking for miracles — they accepted that death was inevitable — but they felt unprepared and untrained for the burden of watching their loved one struggle to breathe, to communicate, to just let go. Sometimes a spouse confessed that as the husband or wife’s death neared, they worried they’d always associate the home with the death. And so, they dialed 911.

How can we better support those family caregivers so that they don’t end up in the emergency department? Prepare them. Acknowledge the messiness of death. And obviously, provide palliative care resources.

In our house, I had a frank discussion with all the kids and even our cleaning lady: no matter how bad Don looked, no one was ever to call 911. I knew that if he was taken to hospital, he’d never come home again, and he’d die there. Our palliative care team had a binder that stayed on the kitchen counter, with Don’s Do Not Resuscitate order at the front. We had a nurse we could call if his symptoms weren’t being managed well. Don had opted for terminal sedation at the end: an induced coma, without food or fluids. The palliative care physician visited every few days to make sure the drugs were working, and to give us his best guess as to how much longer Don could go on like that.

I often see frail, elderly spouses who try to provide this care for their dying loved ones at home, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why they struggled. There’s no question that we were luckier than most families: I was relatively young, and we had the resources for me to stay at home and care for Don from the night they diagnosed his brain tumour until his death seven months later. Our children were incredibly strong and present, and we took turns doing even the most personal and intimate tasks for him.

Don had desperately wanted an assisted death, an option unavailable to him at the time. But if he had to die “naturally,” he told us, he’d prefer not to have strangers assisting him. In the end — only after Don was sedated, and with no small amount of guilt, we accepted help from those “strangers” to bathe him and turn him so he wouldn’t get bed sores.

There was so little comfort we could take in the fact of Don’s too-early terminal illness. But knowing that we helped him fulfil at least one of his wishes for his death — that he die at home — was comforting to us. And I thoroughly recommend it to other families if they can manage.

After Don died in my arms, all the kids came up to our bedroom and we surrounded him, breaking out his favourite scotch and sharing stories and memories. The palliative care doctor on call came to pronounce him dead and then I called the funeral home. And learned he’d be spending one more night beside me.

I’ll admit, it was weird. But as I pulled up the covers, I found they were mostly over on his side of the bed, and I smiled and looked over at his sweet face one last time. “Really Don? Hogging the covers, even in death?” And I slept soundly all night.

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