Despite what I had said to Emily earlier, I actually was tempted to go over to the hospice to visit her after work or on the weekend, recognized that as the impulse to overfunction, and remembered the conversation I had with my very first Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor in a similar situation. She asked if the patient had asked me to stay in touch with her. Well, no, she had not. My supervisor asked how it might play out if I did go visit the patient in her new facility, and I could immediately see that it would likely end in disappointment for the patient. I might visit every weekend for a couple of months, but sooner or later, I would have other things to do. I saw that it was not feasible or appropriate to try to prolong the relationship with even this one patient, let alone every patient I particularly like, which is a lot of them.
This impulse to overfunction is also about the mistaken notion that the patient really needs me. The patient might really like me and might even miss me, but there are (one hopes) many people who will care for her in her new home, and my hanging on could stall the development of important new relationships.
After I got home from work, I felt disoriented, as if a bomblet had gone off in my psyche. I had a wave of thoughts: “Maybe I should get married. Maybe I should move in with a roommate. I’m going to start eating sugar again. Chocolate-chip cookies!” Translation: Being closely connected to people, always a good thing, might prevent my ending up alone and terrified when it’s time to go to hospice. And: life is short, so eat cookies.
I quickly dispatched with the latter: not good self-care. And then with the former. Being connected with people is good, but what was happening here was that Emily’s fear had triggered mine, and I was going to have to deal with that, and also remember that end of life happens a million different ways and that I’ll just have to see how it is when I get there. I think I read in When Professionals Weep a clinician’s observation that most people who know they are going to die are able to make some sort of peace with it before it happens. I found myself thinking, and sincerely meaning it, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be lucky if I got cancer while I still have mental clarity and enough money?”
The next day, I no longer felt upset. (Joan Halifax in Standing at the Edge writes that “open awareness meditation seems to reduce our tendency to get [mentally] stuck, thus enhancing greater emotional pliancy.”) However, in the course of the morning, forgetting everything I had reminded myself about the perils of overfunctioning, I telephoned the hospice and spoke with Emily. I also spoke with someone who works there and said I thought Emily would love to be visited by a volunteer. When I spoke with Emily, she sounded fairly calm, though she had gotten the upsetting news that she can’t go visit her friends any more. She said that I had been there at the worst time—when they came to take her from the hospital—and she thanked me. When I asked if she still felt scared, she said, “Yes.” I told her I had asked for a volunteer to visit her and she said that would be good.
So that conversation was OK. She was of course glad to hear from me and I was relieved to hear that she seemed calmer, but now it was unclear what should happen next. Should I call her every day? Every couple of days? Weekly? I concluded that it had been a mistake to call, and that I should have known better. There was a very natural stopping point for our relationship—when the ambulance door closed—and I should have honored and respected that.