By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
“High Maintenance” is a term sometimes used to describe persons who demand or require an extraordinary amount of time, energy and attention from others without giving a corresponding degree of attentiveness in return.
My mother was like that. In gatherings where everyone else was sitting, she would stand and pontificate on whatever happened to be the current topic of conversation. She craved an audience. When my kids were very young she would want me to send them to their room so I could devote all my attention to her. Sometimes I would describe my experience of being with her as having her suck all the air out of the room.
I have observed that sometimes people who might not ordinarily be seen as high maintenance become so when they are facing death or grief. Because they are preoccupied with their personal situation, they may expect to be the center of attention and become impatient and sometimes judgmental when friends include other topics in conversation besides their impending death or current grief.
Many find it hard to be with people who are dying or grieving because of this high maintenance factor. The presence required can be emotionally exhausting. But in spite of the difficulty I think we must find ways to offer our full attention and not grow weary when a suffering friend needs to talk incessantly and even in a round-about-way process the reality that they are having to face.
It is tempting to want our suffering friends to suffer in silence because we like to believe that we will be able to suffer in silence when our time comes. But in truth we don’t know how it will be for us when we are staring death or grief in the face. Will we fight it? Deny it? Ignore it? Lean into it? On any given day as I think about my own dying I could see myself responding in any of those ways. My hunch is that when our time comes to face death or grief it will take some time for us to adjust, and we will need others to listen while we talk out loud. Then we will be glad when others don’t reject us because we are “high maintenance.”
Whether we are in the early stages of dying or the early stages of grief it really is all about us. We don’t make good conversationalists because we are preoccupied with something we have not wanted to face. If we are dying, all of a sudden major decisions are being thrown at us. Do I try to treat this? Should I consider assisted suicide? How much pain can I handle? Where do I want to die? Are there things I still want to do, places to see, friends to visit? The list is exhausting. Advice is rarely helpful because all we really want is to not be in the place where we are at that moment.
I remember a joke I heard on Prairie home Companion a number of years ago. It went like this:
A man was told by his doctor that he had 24 hours to live. His wife asked him what he would like her to prepare for his last meal. “Your wonderful meatloaf would be great,” he said. “But first I want to make love to you.” After enjoying an evening marital bliss and a wonderful meal, the man said “I want to make love just one last time.” “No way,” was her reply. “Remember, I have to get up early and go to work and you don’t!”
It is true that when we are dying or grieving, it is easy to forget that others have their own lives to live. The miracle of forgiveness may need to come from both sides. This means forgiving others for not being able to completely meet our needs and forgiving ourselves when we have to make choices contrary to what the dying of grieving person wants from us.
How do we take care of ourselves as we make ourselves available to the one who is needing us?
Sometimes it’s doing tag, you’re it. In other words, share the burden, not assuming we have to do it alone. Have a care team of several persons who can not only take care of the dying person but can also take care of each other. Trust that the person who is dying is doing the best that they can in that moment. Remind ourselves that it will be over. And it means learning to be grateful for the time you get to spend with this person and grateful for the lessons you are learning about life.
Those of us who have the privilege of walking alongside those who are dying or grieving have been given a great gift. We can observe what that journey looks like for others while remembering it is a unique experience for each of us and we can say with humility, “Oh, I hope I don’t do that,’ or, “I hope I have that much grace. ”
It’s all good. Even the hard stuff.