Remember being sixteen, getting your driver’s licence and thinking you were all grown- up? The card in your wallet brought freedom, as long as the gas tank was full when you returned the car to your parents’ garage.
That feeling of being grown-up may have lasted until you lost your virginity. In fifteen minutes you had been introduced to the mysteries of adulthood, but were left wondering, “Is that all there is? Could there be more to being an adult?”
And yes, there was more.
You cast your first ballot at the age of twenty-one and were finally taking part in the affairs of the country. This had to be what being grown-up was about.
But no. There was still more.
Like the time you received your first paycheque and saw deductions to the Canada Pension Plan. Here you were, just barely out of your teens and you were contributing to your security in old age – a very grown-up thing to do.
After a time you realized that ‘grown-up’ was an illusion. You continued to have these moments of milestone awareness when you married, when you bought your first house, and then again when you had your first child.
However, somewhere between that first child and that same child’s graduation from post-secondary school, a parent died. And that was when it hit you.
“Now, I’m grown-up. I am one of the eldest in my family. I’m it.”
And if, like me, you regressed while your parent was ill, wanting to be the child who did not have to deal with adult situations, it was a wake-up call. Grown-ups drive, vote, give birth, pay taxes, buy a house, pay down the mortgage, raise children and, grown-ups help their parents exit this world.
No one told me as I grew up that I would be helping a parent through an illness. That I would be sitting with that parent as the last breath was drawn. Or that I would be comforting the surviving parent. No one told me, or showed me, and so I was not prepared. And I was a registered nurse. If I wasn’t ready, then who was?
It’s a familiar situation. A parent becomes ill; the prognosis is grim. And squeezed into those free moments amongst the competing demands of children, careers, marriage, and caregiving they/we need to learn more than we ever wanted to know about dying.
But what if we normalized dying and death just as we have done pregnancy and childbirth?
If we considered dying to be part of life, palliative care would be introduced to high school health education classes. Lessons about learning how to be present to, and caring for someone who is dying would co-exist with other content, like sex-education. The classes could have immediate benefit for some students. The minimal value of being present during the end stages of an illness is that it provides our children with a practice opportunity — long before they assume the mantle of family elder. At best, the experience of being present with several generations creates an opportunity for a family discussion about remembering, grieving, and preparing for end-of-life— while living each day to the fullest.
However, inclusion in high school curricula requires societal pre-cursors such as:
- Advance Directives for End of Life Care that are discussed, written down, filed, and communicated with the family physician. (About 30% of Canadians have had the discussion — 16% have done something as a result.)
- Palliative care content that is included in the curriculum of all medical and nursing schools. (There is still work to be done.)
- Palliative care services that are well-funded and integrated into the health care system. (We’re not there yet.)
If we hope to fare better than our parents may have in their last weeks, days and moments, there is much work to be done. It’s up to us, because we are now the grown-ups.
This note was written to honour Stephanie Chate-Anderson, who with her mother and her brother managed her father’s last weeks, days, hours, and minutes, with grace, courage and love.
The arrangement in the photo was done by Stephanie Chate-Anderson for the launch of Autumn’s Grace.