Ms. Spiritual Matters
Published in Transformation Magazine (2015-2016)
Written by Susan L. Schoenbeck, MSN, RN
Susan answers questions from readers who want to communicate effectively & spiritually when challenged with sensitive issues, or difficult people; or simply reflect on a personal experience.
Click on each name (to the left) to toggle open that person's question and Susan's response.
June 15th, 2016
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
My mother is dying. She is just 62 years old, so this is an unexpected event for all of us in the family. She battled cancer once when she was in her 40s. Now a different form of cancer has occurred. She refuses chemotherapy. She is having radiation to shrink tumors and lessen the pain. She told me she wants two things when she dies: to be comfortable and to have her children by her bedside. She was moved to a hospice last week. The nurses keep her pain under control.
When I held her hand the other night, she told me she regretted she hadn’t the courage to live her life differently. I know she was not happily married to my father, but she remained in the marriage to be true to her religious beliefs. Each of my parents did their own thing−walking around each other rather than taking part in each other’s lives.
I wonder how many other people die with regrets.
How wonderful that your mother is experiencing the comfort nurses and family can provide at the end of life. I am sure this brings her happiness. Some artists work with paint and clay. A nurse’s art is caring for people. Family members can bring happiness to their loved ones by responding to each other’s end-of-life wishes.
I am sorry your mother did not get to have the life she wanted because she conformed to what others—in this case the church—viewed as her obligation. The doctrine of many churches has become more forgiving.
As you look around you, do not despair. We all hope to have wonderful, happy lives. But, circumstances often get in the way. That our lives do not play out in alignment with our wishes does not mean we cannot experience beautiful moments of happiness.
Your mother is not alone in voicing regrets. Many, like your mother, were afraid to tell others how they really felt and to change the direction of their lives. Another common regret people report is that they worked too hard. Another widespread regret people report when they are dying is not having taken the time to do things that bring them happiness, such as keeping in touch with friends and family.
Your mother was able to tell you the two things she wanted when she was at the end of life: being free from pain and having her children at her bedside. Right now you hold your mother’s hand. The nurses are supporting her comfort. In the end, she is living her life as she wishes. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, stated that people find meaning up to and through the death event. Today she has happiness.
May 15th, 2016
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
I have begun to see many ways that my sister is peeling away from me. She is dying at age 68. At least, that is what she tells me. She’s not on hospice, but I can tell that she has given up on this life. It no longer matters to her.
Nothing pleases her. Not even the arrival of spring after a pain-in-the ass winter of freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. Trying to get her to look forward to being able to sit outside on her deck, I ask if she has the bird feeders up. “No, it’s not my job to get them ready.” she says.
I question if she has filled the hanging baskets of flowers to hang on the latticework above the deck. She usually has a dozen or so absolutely stunning magenta, gold, and purple cascading flower arrangements. “More work. I can’t do it.” Thinking something has changed since last year when she proudly sat amidst the flowers and talked about all the birds and butterflies she purposely attracted to her yard, I invite her to talk about her plans for her yard this spring. “Don’t have any,” she replies. The bitterness she feels turns her voice a rancid spouting out of negative vibes. I wish to stop talking to her. But, I can’t because I am her sister.
My sister changes the subject. She says, “No one needs to come to my funeral. I won’t have any. That will show them.” My heart does a little skip and a gasp, and I falter in response. “Everyone has a funeral,” I say. But, I know that isn’t true. She could go to her death hoping that everyone would feel badly about there being no celebration of her life. That would suit her.
You see, my sister is crabby. She likes to get even. I guess I would have to say those are her two strongest characteristics. She often tells me that when her husband’s behavior annoys her. She says, “I’ll get him. Just you wait and see.” And, she does. The next time I talk to her she tells me how she is hiding money from him. I can read her mind as it triumphantly declares, “Got him! He will never know.”
Sheltered from these thoughts of my sister by decades of years spent apart—our only communication by phone and occasional cards and gifts—no longer can I avoid the intrusion of thoughts about her. I feel conscious of her demise growing like a tumor—bigger in my mind—taking thoughts from other events. Maybe that is what happens when we get older. I can remember my sibling and what we did when we were young. But, every day more of her is lost, never again to be found.
I feel like I have sympathy toward her but no connection. Other than weekly calls to her and listening to her complaints, I don’t make a difference in her life. What can I do?
It sounds like you are feeling an emotional disconnectedness. Your sister is carrying around a lot of gloom inside her. All of the negative words she expresses likely reflect the conflicts she has. You cannot fix her situation and that’s okay.
You are doing good by listening because this validates for her that her feelings are real. Keep making those calls and listening. Although it may not seem so, your sticking with her as she sorts through her life in these conversations may be healing. Many siblings do not recognize what you do—that sisters and brothers face many emotional battles as they meet the end of their lives. Sometimes, siblings are working through the loss of knowing they will miss loved ones. Other times, they are watching their own physical selves deteriorate. Whereas the baby-boomer generation thought themselves invincible and able to conquer all challenges, they now understand they cannot avoid the challenges death brings. The baby-boomer generation now faces the penultimate of experiences—preparing for death.
You are not alone in facing a sibling who is experiencing anticipatory grief. Complaining about the losses brings death into view. Having this phone time with your sister can be surprisingly healing for your sibling relationship. You realize what makes your sibling tick. You come to terms with the fact that the paths people walk through during life are different because we all are one-of-a-kind. Sibling lives—although lived in tandem—are unique. Your willingness to listen makes you special. Your sister is lucky to have you with her at this crossroad.
April 15th, 2016
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
I was at my sister’s house last week. We were having tea in her kitchen when she stopped chatting with me. I asked her if there was something wrong and she said, “No.” But, I could tell she wasn’t all right. She was staring out into space and not fully listening to me. I prodded her to tell me what was going on.
Becky said she smelled a familiar scent surround her. She is a hospice nurse who takes care of people in an in-patient setting. Becky spends a lot of time with patients and gets close to them. She said the fragrance was just like the cologne one of her patients had the nurses spray on her every morning. Becky told me the patient might be visiting us in the kitchen right at that moment. The hospice Becky works at is 10 miles away so I knew this was not physically possible. I did not follow up on her comment, thinking at the time that she was just stressed and unable to let go of work even on her days off.
Today, Becky called me and asked me if I remembered her smelling the scent of the patient. She said that when she went back to work she found out that the patient died at the same time she smelled the patient’s fragrance in the kitchen that day with me. I love my sister and respect her work but I do not understand this. Are there any thoughts you can share?
Nurses learn that people who die travel out of their earthbound body and may visit, in spirit form, the ones they love. It sounds like the dying person’s spirit vibrations were manifested to your sister. The scent was likely a sign the patient wanted your sister to know she was there, just not in physical form.
Hospice nurses are used to running into spirit forms. These exceptional nurses often have extraordinary perception greater than most others see, feel, smell, and hear.
Quantum Mechanics theory provides us with a rationale for what happened. It states that what happens in one place can be felt at the same time in another place simultaneously, no matter the distance and without any visible connection.
In the case of your sister smelling the familiar scent of the patient, there was no physical sign or force that linked your sister and her patient. The 10-mile distance between your sister’s home and the hospice where the patient died did not block the transmission and your sister’s experience of the spiritual visit when the death of the patient happened.
You are fortunate that your sister shared this story with you. Most people do not confide in others about such experiences like because they believe others may think they are crazy. But, it seems from your story, that your sister trusts you and opened the doorway to reveal something extraordinary. You are lucky Becky gave you this glimpse into this spiritual visit.
I suggest you validate your sister’s experience with some words of understanding and admiration.
March 15th, 2016
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
My mother wanted some control at the end of her life. Cancer had weakened her to a point that she no longer could take care of herself. Being the oldest of nine children, she had always been the giver not the receiver. Now, at age 80, needing assistance upset her. Being helped made her uncomfortable. Deep down she could only give not receive. Her attitude of doing for herself was not going to change…not if she could help it.
One evening my father called and asked that I come quickly because mother was unable to get out of the bath tub by herself. She was crying. He had to lift her out.
Just as I finished dressing to leave, the phone rang again. I picked it up at the same time as my purse because I was going to quickly tell the caller, I could not talk but had to run. This time my mother spoke. She pleaded, “Please don’t come.” I explained that dad had phoned upset with worry. My mother said she was aware he was shaken up. “But, I do not want you to come and rescue me again. I want you to stay where you are. The room has been spinning more often. You know I’ve been on the other side. I am tired and want to go. Please do not come tonight.” I said I would not come because she asked me to not do so.
My sleep was restless and full of second guessing. Should I stay or should I go? It was hard to go to work the next day fearing my time with my mother was about to end.
The next evening, Dad called an ambulance. I picked him up and we went to the hospital. Mother looked so tiny in the bed. An IV pump pushed fluid into her vein. She was pale but smiled when she saw us. Dad sat down in a recliner and promptly fell asleep. This left time for mother and I to talk. She had been throwing clots periodically—the reason the room kept spinning. This was happening more often. Her medicine to keep the clots from forming didn’t work well with her drinking. We both knew that. People make their choices and take their chances. She knew what came next and wanted it.
After a few hours, my mother asked me to take my father home. I awoke him and we said good-bye. As we were leaving, my father had to use the bathroom. I dropped him there and went through instructions to wait for me outside the door when he was done.
I flew back to my mother’s room. I grabbed her and held onto her and we each were saying how much we loved each other. The nurse trying to keep the IV line from tangling between us started sobbing too. “I love you. I love you.” I could not say it strong or loud enough. And, she weakly but strongly said the same. And we wept together.
Leaving her alone was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But, she wanted me to take my father home.
I settled in overnight at my father’s place. The phone rang the next morning at 8 am. It was a call from the hospital. I passed the phone to my father. He was told my mother died. My father crumbled into a chair. He never expected her to go first.
I worry that I misread what she meant. Maybe, we should have stayed with my mother. What do you think?
Your mother told you that she knew she wanted to move on. She said she would be okay...all right just somewhere else.
You carried out your mother’s last wish—to care for your father. Doing good is not always the most comfortable path to walk.
Be happy your mother was able to arrange her own final entrance into the world she trusted awaited her beyond this one.
February 15th, 2016
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
My dog, Sam, meant everything to me. Sam was loyal. He was the first one I saw in the morning, the one who cheerily greeted me upon arrival from home after work, and the last one to whom I bid good night. He chased balls. He loved going for walks in the park.
When Sam unexpectedly died two months ago, I was in such a state of shock that I let my brother handle the details. My brother had Sam cremated. Sam enjoyed swimming in a nearby lake. We scattered his ashes over the water he loved.
I miss Sam. Standing on the shoreline looking out and not seeing him just isn’t enough. What can I do?
By no means do you feel differently than other pet owners who have deeply loved their pets. After cremation and the dispersal of ashes, many people yearn for a specific place where they can routinely remember their special animal.
You might place a stone marker with Sam’s name on it in your garden or on a balcony or porch. You could have an epitaph inscribed on the stone as a tribute to Sam’s playfulness, loyalty and devotion.
Building such a memorial creates a space you can step into and enjoy a ritual of remembering Sam. You might memorialize Sam with art, such as a collage of photos or an artist’s rendition of Sam taken from photos. You could intersperse among the photos short captions or poems that best describe your times with Sam.
Remember that rituals restore equilibrium. You can create good times with the memories you cherish.
January 15th, 2016
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
My new co-worker, Jane, was assigned the cubicle backing up to mine. She is constantly on her handheld devices. Jane brings two phones to work. She uses one for games and one for calls. I can hear the ping-pong andsquawking as she navigates through Candy Crush and Angry Birds. On average, she gets a text every 15 minutes.
The constant distractions bother me. The quality of my work is being affected because I can’t concentrate.
How should I approach this problem?
Have you ever played Candy Crush or Angry Birds? These games are fun and can be quite addicting. Your new coworker may have had spare time to play these before she took the job. So, let’s give Jane some cues that this habit irritates you.
First, talk to her. I suggest you be assertive and tell her this noise distracts you. Say, “The sounds from your electronic devices make it hard for me to concentrate.” She may not realize you can hear the ping-pong and squawking. She might not have enough work to do yet as she learns her job responsibilities and, therefore, she finds herself with time to fill. She may have unknowingly annoyed you, feel embarrassed, and apologize profusely. By telling her, you make her aware.
Second, you could ask her to silence her device. Be prepared, however, as we have some folks out there for whom silence is uncomfortable. The ping-pong and the squawking relax them. They are calmed by the constant clanging.
If silencing the device does not work, she needs headphones. It’s okay to tell your new office mate how you feel. Just be sure to use a positive approach.
December 15th, 2015
Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
I know this may sound curious, but I have to ask. This past holiday season was the first holiday we celebrated since my beloved husband’s death. My children, grandchildren, and close friends gathered together at my house on Christmas Eve.
I sat back in my favorite chair and watched as the children opened presents. Laughter and squeals of glee filled the room.
I smelled pipe tobacco. No one was smoking. My husband had always packed a special blend in his pipe at the holidays. All the celebration faded into the background when I sensed this distinctive aroma by my armchair.
It was like he was there. I felt love—his love—surrounding me. I did not tell anyone. No one else seemed to notice. Could he have made a visit?
You are not alone in feeling the presence of a loved one who has died. Research studies show that approximately 46 percent of widows and widowers report they have heard, seen, smelled, or felt the presence of their recently deceased loved one. What you experienced happened.
What does this tell us? Quantum physics theory explains it this way. Events can occur even though there is great distance between the different places in the universe where they are occurring. Connections can be made even though there are no reasonable, rational explanations of pathways for travel of these manifestations.
Be assured that this “visit” was intended. Love cannot be erased by death.