Birth, graduations, marriage, anniversaries, death - important moments in our lives are often celebrated by some type of ceremony. In our middle to late years, we are often encouraged to plan the type of funeral we’d like, even pre-paying so our loved ones won’t have to juggle business and grief.
Everyone has different ideas about when a ceremony is appropriate, however I’ve learned about a new ceremony that I find very appealing. It’s the “Walking You Home” program and it offers a dignified touch and family support immediately after the death of a loved one.
For many elders, the death process is fairly drawn out. I’ve attended deaths where the actual process lasted many hours. For my mother, it took several days. Each of these attended deaths marked an important point in my life. They are times that will be a part of me, always.
If our loved ones are in a care home while they die, and the staff is as well known to them as the staff at Rosewood on Broadway was to my family, the feeling of sympathy and compassion travels wordlessly from staff to family and gives strength. If hospice is involved, as Hospice of the Red River Valley was for my parents, they too add their compassion and strength while helping our loved ones pass on with dignity.
But then what? The time came when I needed to leave my uncle, my dad, my mom - leave their lifeless bodies and go home. I felt grief at their loss. I felt relief that their suffering was over. But I also had a “now what?” feeling.
Oh, I knew the funeral would happen and we had a pretty good idea when. None of these deaths were surprises. But to leave the body of someone we love, knowing it’s time for the funeral home to “do their business,” is painful. My own feeling was of helplessness and uselessness. I’d been a caregiver to them for so long. Now they were gone and I was to just walk away “empty handed.”
Of course, there were hugs and warm words from staff. There was help the next day when I had to clean out rooms. But something about saying goodbye was missing. Now Rosewood and other homes have started the “Walking You Home” program.
“Walking You Home” is a way for staff, residents and family to show their respect for the deceased by accompanying the deceased’s body from their room to a waiting funeral coach. There’s a touching dignity about this program that I think I would have found comforting.
When people live in a care center for a long time, residents get to know one another. When someone dies, they - well, they just disappear. As a friend said, they seem to kind of slip away in the middle of the night. Or, as I often witnessed, residents who noticed the funeral home’s cart being rolled up to the elevator will mumble, “well, someone is dying again,” and look away.
Death ends the life cycle and none of us will escape that. “Walking You Home,” is simply about giving a little extra dignity to that final part of the journey. Rather than leaving the family with suddenly empty hands, people gather, hugs are exchanged, and those residents who may have just looked on from the sidelines can choose to be part of a little honor guard. Staff who have grown close to the elder also join in the walk. Now, family members, staff and residents give deceased residents a loving dignified “goodbye” as they walk with the body while it leaves the nursing home for the last time.
Somehow that seems fitting to me. I’m pleased that Rosewood has implemented this program of dignity and I expect other area nursing homes will begin to make it part of their care. It’s one more step in acknowledging the humanity of the person whose life may have ended in a manner they would not have chosen; in a manner that many would say wasn’t dignified. It’s one way to say to the family and the person who died. “Yes you mattered, and we will miss you.” “Walking You Home” is a small but touching ceremony to mark one more step along life’s final journey.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.