Life continually presents us with obligations. Some things we do routinely - work, pay bills, keep appointments and walk the dog. Other responsibilities are extraordinary. Like the one that arises when a loved one gets sick. To see life slipping away from a parent or a sibling, from our spouse or best friend brings about a series of special responsibilities. It is natural that we devote extra time and energy to care for them because love compels action.
We also have obligations to ourselves, of course, like eating balanced meals, getting rest, keeping our own medical appointments and taking time to relax. But in your life recently, responsibility to a loved one has taken precedence over your own needs.
If you were able to be present for your loved one in any way, you met a profound obligation. The responsibility may have been so consuming that you placed your own life "on hold" for the sake of the one you loved. Just consider for a moment all the things you may have taken on.
You spent long hours with your loved one, and you were probably more awake and watchful the more he or she was sleeping. Keeping a vigil was a beautiful thing to do. Your presence meant more than you may know.
It may be that one of your new responsibilities was to become the knowledgeable "primary care giver." You needed to know when medication had to be given. Know when the nurse was coming. Know when the bedding needed changing. Your being responsible in this way probably enabled your loved one to spend more time at home, which is where most of us wish to be.
Another exceptional responsibility is making important decisions about medical care. Being a health care proxy required you to weigh treatments that were necessary to enhance comfort against treatments that did not help. It included listening to doctors and nurses explain the difference between procedures that are beneficial and those that are burdensome, between tests that are appropriate and those that could be eliminated. Whether your loved one was on hospice, in hospital or at home, you wanted them to receive maximum pain relief, the best symptom management and comfort care. Now it is time for you to receive your own comfort care.
Perhaps your responsibility was to be the family liaison, talking regularly to relatives and friends, giving updates on your loved one's condition. Now is the time to be concerned about the condition of your own health and well being.
After the end came, and before too much time elapsed, the funeral or memorial needed to be planned. Would it be in a mortuary or a house of worship? Responsibilities included: ask the right person to give the eulogy, choose special music, arrange for a reception, feel the pressure to send acknowledgements to those people who came or sent flowers or cards. The responsibilities can seem endless, but an end is in sight.
As the estate is settled, you may be faced with yet another set of obligations, including obtaining death certificates, signing affidavits and dispersing property. When the time seems right, and not before, the closets will need to be cleaned out and heirlooms and keepsakes passed on to be cherished by another generation.
After all that you have been through, it is perfectly understandable if you say that you feel drained emotionally, physically and even spiritually. When we lose a special love, the feeling is that of having someone ripped from our arms. This is the very meaning of bereavement - to be torn apart. The time has come to begin to let the broken heart mend.
More than 2300 years ago the writer of the book we call Ecclesiastes said, "For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die
A time to break down and a time to build up
A time to weep and a time to laugh
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
In the same vein, we could continue:
"There is a time to bear responsibility for the one we love, who is dying; and then a time to be responsible to ourselves, who still live."
I hope that you take satisfaction in the knowledge that you met your responsibilities to your loved one. If you are like many other people who take their responsibility seriously, you were patient, faithful and vigilant to the end.
Even though you are still mourning, and may be sad for quite some time, you will do honor to the memory of the one you loved by letting others reach out to you as you yourself begin to pay attention to your needs.
Your charge of caring for the one who died is over. Your mission is accomplished. You persevered. You met your responsibility to your beloved and your responsibility to your loved one is now over. Now, the responsible thing is to let your own heart begin to heal.
For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. May you begin to enter a season of restfulness and a time of peace; a season of refreshment and a time of comfort; a season of new life -- and a time of hope for the future. This meditation by the Rev. William Purdy, DD, is adapted from an address given at a Memorial Service sponsored by the Lilian and Benjamin Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in the City of New York.
This publication is made possible by a gift from Roland DeL. Rinsland, Ed. D.