Showing 1 - 3 of 3 annotations tagged with the keyword "Hospice"

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


After 65 years of marriage, two life-partners face the prospect of final separation, as one of them develops multiple myeloma. This is the crisis that led Irvin Yalom, eminent psychiatrist, novelist, and pioneer of existential psychotherapy, and his wife Marilyn, acclaimed feminist author and historian, to collaborate in writing the story of their journey through Marilyn’s final months of life. In the resulting book, Irvin and Marilyn write alternating chapters until Marilyn becomes unable to write. After her death, Irvin continues with the story of his bereavement.  

Marilyn’s chapters include reflections on love and illness, ranging from Emily Dickinson and Henry James to Paul the Apostle. She frequently expresses her gratitude: “I can still talk, read, and answer my emails. I am surrounded by loving people in a comfortable and attractive home.” (p. 20) Most of all, she is thankful for her husband, “the most loving of caretakers.” (p. 15) Yet, as her disease progresses, she comes “to the understanding that I would never be the same again—that I would pass through days of unspeakable misery while my body would decline and weaken.” (p. 76) She decides to pursue the option of physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in California, when her suffering becomes overwhelming.  

In his chapters, Irvin resists this decision, maintaining hope for additional “good” life, despite all evidence to the contrary. Near the end, Marilyn’s pain and other symptoms become so severe that she cries out, “It’s time, Irv. It’s time. No more, please. No more.” (p. 139) Her physician arrives, confirms her intention, and surrounded by her whole family, Marilyn sucks the liquid through a straw and quietly passes away.

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Davis, Cortney

Last Updated: Jan-17-2022
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)


Davis, a nurse practitioner, chronicles her daughter’s life, illness and death at age 54 from cancer. The book consists of three sections, with poems unevenly divided such that of the 30 poems, only one rests in section II. Titled Windmill, this poem forms a fulcrum between the relationship of mother and daughter to one of mother and ill daughter. The windmill is a small gift from her daughter – a reminder of Kansas where the daughter, her husband and children live, thousands of miles from Davis. The collection begins with her ‘soon-to-be born daughter’ (page 15) and ends with The Sacrament of Time, dated months before her daughter’s death from, at this point, a widely metastatic breast cancer. The final poem holds within it an entire world – the birth of the daughter, the fraught frantic mother-to-be pleading for help, the birth of a healthy baby girl, the wonder of the new addition to their family, the travel with the newborn to home, and a reflection on what poems can and cannot do. “Poems cannot // save us, Amichai said, but all I have are these poems” (page 58).  

If the first section details the many ways unconditional love for a child unfolds, through wonders of babyhood, delights of childhood, the harsh lessons of adolescence, and the successful launch, the final section underscores how deep that love runs. As the cancer illness progressed during the pandemic, issues of separation became more acute. Davis marks the numbers affected (illness and death) by coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19) during the pandemic, as her poems follow her daughter’s cancer. These numbers, along with brief quotations from her daughter’s scans and reports, lend a contrast to the evocative imagery and experience of illness in a loved one. Medical mistakes are chronicled as well (see What a Terrible Mistake).  

The collection is dedicated to Davis’ daughter and her daughter’s children. Even the title, Daughter, calls to her, as if addressing her daughter directly. The title also serves to universalize the parenting of a daughter, even as the particulars of this family are detailed.

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In Death is But a Dream, Christopher Kerr, MD, PhD, the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Medical Officer of Hospice & Palliative Care Buffalo, shares his patients’ end-of-life dreams and visions. The content and intensity of these dreams vary, but often center on patients’ transient meetings with predeceased loved ones, offering a deeply spiritual sense of peace during periods of physical suffering. 

Using patient interviews, Kerr’s book does not fetishize dream events as ghostly commotions or in terms of pseudo-mysticism, or insist on using a religious framework for their interpretation, explaining rather that bearing witness to and legitimizing end-of-life dream experiences constitute a new ethical imperative in the practice of palliative care: “A true holistic approach to patient care must also honor and facilitate patients’ subjective experiences and allow them to transform the dying process from a story of mere physical decline to one of spiritual ascension” (Kerr 28). Case after case, his research documents that because end-of-life dreams provide patients with a singular emotional and psychological comfort that no palliative medication can simulate, hospice professionals need to validate patient dreams by listening carefully and compassionately. 

With this in mind, end-of-life dreams serve as a kind of counter-narrative to dominant cultural understandings and representations of human experiences in hospice, specifically stereotypes of terminally ill individuals as being incapable of meaningful communication, creativity, and understanding. Kerr’s patients’ narratives reveal that end-of-life dreams and visions are not trauma-inducing experiences or instances of religious prophecy, but “help reframe dying in a way that is not about last words and lost love but about strengthened selves and unbreakable bonds across lives” (142). 

Death is But a Dream 
upends medical research, or certain “limitations of science,” that oversimplifies end-of-life dreams by attributing them to neurological deterioration, oxygen deprivation, and the side effects of pain management medication (11). The general lack of rigorous, serious-minded research in end-of-life dream experiences is inseparable, in part, from institutionalized medicine’s “inability to see dying as anything but a failure” which has produced a healthcare system that “reflects a limited view of the totality of the dying experience” (7). The patient accounts that Kerr documents, however, reveal an undeniable dimension of human experience at life’s end whose complexities may be well beyond the reaches of full scientific understanding. End-of-life dreams seem to be part of an elaborate system of compensation (to borrow a term used by Siddhartha Mukherjee), as the mind works overtime to activate and animate certain memories to diminish the physical realities of dying. “There is an adaptation—substantive, spiritual yet cognitively meaningful,” writes Kerr, “a mechanism through which the patient can emerge from the dying process with a positive psychological change” (69). Indeed, the mystery of end-of-life dreams—their visions of loved ones; of seeking forgiveness, healing, and understanding within weeks, sometimes days, of one’s death; of comforting apparitions and visitations—points to a miraculous capacity within the human heart that eases the life-to-death transition.

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