St Luke’s Hospital’s chaplain, Esther Goh, reflects on making a final farewell without regrets.
When people learn that they are only left with a few months or even weeks to live, they may inadvertently face overwhelming feelings, not knowing what to do. With the clock ticking, it may be advisable to draft a to-do list when the emotions settle. One of these things may be to look back on life and see if there are any regrets one would like to address before leaving.
In this article, I recall the story of Linda (not her real name), 54, who had end-stage breast cancer. She found closure by finding the courage to resolve misunderstandings with her loved ones, and also regained meaning and purpose by reconnecting with her faith before the end-of-life.
It was Mother’s Day at the palliative ward. Linda’s son made her a Mothers’ Day card, the first one she had received in years. In it, he penned his love for her. Tears welled in Linda’s eyes.
The reconciliation could have come earlier, but it was better late than never. The simple card provided closure for both mother and son.
Linda had a divorce and both her children were in their father’s custody. The circumstances during that phase of her life were complicated, causing many misunderstandings and much pain. Despite loving her children deeply, the traditional Asian mother did not know how to put her love into words. As a result, their relationship was strained over time.
Lying on her bed in the palliative ward, Linda often thought about how she could have handled the separation better. She wished she had done more to protect her children from the emotional trauma and feelings of loss, abandonment and anger.
After speaking to the chaplaincy team, Linda was encouraged to have a heart-to-heart talk with her son.
On one of her son’s visits, she took the courage to start a conversation. Breaking the silence, they reminisced about their happier times together. The connection was bridged. At the opportune moment, Linda took a leap of faith and initiated the open and honest conversation that was long overdue.
The air was cleared. Linda reassured her son that despite all the challenges they have faced, she has and will always love him unconditionally and irrevocably. She wished she had more time to make up for the lost opportunities over the years, and will always cherish their memories together.
One month later, she passed on.
In her last days, Linda made cards for her children and even knitted a pair of booties and bonnet for her future grandson. These gifts of love will give her loved ones something to remember her by.
During her time at St Luke’s Hospital, Linda also regained meaning and purpose by reconnecting with her faith. A Catholic by marriage, Linda had no strong biblical foundations and fell away from her faith after the divorce. With the help of the chaplaincy team, she strengthened her spiritual faith and found the inner peace she yearned for.
It was a good goodbye.
To “Live Well. Leave Well.”
I believe that reconciled relationships are important for both the leaving and the living. For the leaving, it gives them a sense of peace and harmony and enables them to leave peacefully. Likewise, the bereaved will also experience inner peace and prevent any regret and guilt if they missed their final opportunity to make good. Restored relationships allow for mutual support, enabling the dying to feel loved, and leaving precious memories for the bereaved.
Sometimes, all patients need is a little help. They may lack the courage to take the first step because they fear rejection. They may also be feeling overwhelmed as they experience an onslaught of complex emotions such as sadness, anxiety and loneliness as they near the final phase of life.
As chaplains, we care about the spiritual and emotional well-being of our patients and their families. We can step in as a friend to better understand the misunderstanding that caused the strained relationship. We can provide an objective perspective and help both parties to connect in an open and honest conversation.
In my experience, patients who have made the conscious decision to make good and resolve misunderstandings were able to embrace their death, and find peace with the inevitability of it.
It is a consolation to see a troubled face evolve into one that exudes peace.
How to broach the topic?
Below are some ways to approach the situation if you have an unresolved situation with someone who is terminally ill:
• Start with a simple greeting
• Make conversations about the things you have always talked about together in the past
• Have a heart-to-heart talk when the moment feels right
• Touch can be a powerful tool — holding their hands or giving a simple hug can sometimes be more powerful than words