When the conversations continue after the final farewell

Her eyes were filling with tears and her lower lip trembled.

You know when someone catches you off guard, and you’re not sure how you should respond? Well, that was me on this particular day.

Doreen was a favourite of mine and, as her room was opposite the nurses’ station, we often enjoyed a little chat. If I had more time, I know I would have come up with a better reply, but I didn’t.

She said through a broken voice: “Will you miss me?”

I was puzzled as to why she asked this as nothing had been handed over.  

I asked Doreen: “Why will I miss you? Are you going somewhere?”

She said: “Yes, I am going somewhere. I have two weeks to live.”

The news caught me completely off guard; I wasn’t sure how I should proceed or how to give her any kind of dignified response. I needed to say something comforting, and quickly. I held her and wanted to make the situation less awkward, but the words didn’t come. I did manage to mumble something about how fond of her I was and how we had a lovely friendship.

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I noticed people continue to ask Doreen, “How are you today?” as they rushed past, not waiting to hear her response. Poor love, what was she meant to say? But she said exactly what they wanted to hear, “Good, thank you.”

Some conversations make people uncomfortable, even in healthcare we continue to see ‘death denial’ and a refusal to accept that the dying process has begun.

Two weeks from diagnosis, Doreen passed away. It was that quick and very sad. It’s always tough when someone passes.

At the risk of sounding harsh, falling apart isn’t worth much if you’re unable to cope and are constantly in tears. It is important to support those who are dealing with death and I certainly did not want to come across as not treating Doreen with the respect she deserved. But no, I didn’t cry. 

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The residents need you, especially at times like that. It is okay to show emotion and it does become easier with experience. I did say goodbye to Doreen and told her I would miss her.

But that wasn’t the end of it; I didn’t have the last word.

After preparing the medication trolley that evening, I went downstairs to hand out the 1700 medications and was surprised to find one of the sachets missing. I returned to the medication room to search but was unable to locate the missing medication. I checked both trollies several more times without locating the missing medication. One last check and, there it was sitting on top of the medication folder in the medication room. I was the only person to have the keys and it certainly wasn’t there previously. I shook my head in disbelief and thought, ‘Doreen, you have had the last word.’

My next shift was the night after Doreen had passed and I was working with my regular partner, Lillee. She was a lovely lady and a great nurse. She had an amazing ability to connect with all our residents. She loved being able to help people at all stages of their life and we were a great team. I always enjoyed working with Lillee, but she would not believe anything ‘weird’ was going on.

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We were doing our usual rounds of 18 high-care and 18 low-care residents. After we had both attended to the high-care residents, the buzzer was pressed in one of the rooms. 

I told Lillee I would attend to the resident while she completed the low-care rounds (that round is usually a quick one), then we could meet up for our coffee break. I finished what I was doing and waited and waited. Finally, she hastily came down the passage – a definite shade of white and green is the only way I can describe her complexion.

I asked what was going on, and she said someone was calling out her name, it was a very long drawn out Lilleeee, six times. She went to each room only to find all residents in bed asleep.

The only person who called her Lilleeee was Doreen. She would come to us and ask for a cigarette, with a long drawn out Lilleeee. We needed to monitor the amount of cigarettes Doreen could have at any one time as she would sit on the balcony and puff away until there were none left. The family gave her a carton and they would be gone in a day. We had become used to the words, “Lilleeee, can I have a cigarette?”

Later, at 6pm, I was showering two residents. Lillee was busy with the early meds and completing documentation. I asked her had she experienced any more encounters on this round. She said yes, just one ‘Lillee’ and not so drawn out.

Our ghostly experiences didn’t end there. Door handles would turn regularly, there was also a scratching sound and talking.

We always checked the rooms during these occasions only to find everyone sleeping soundly.  At one stage we had a mother and daughter among our residents. The daughter was mainly non-verbal, and the mother was the only one who was able to communicate with her. After the mother passed, we would often hear two separate voices coming from the daughter’s room. A quick check would reveal only the daughter present.

But if you asked Lillee, there was no such thing as ghosts.

Pam Barlow has worked in aged care for 25 years.

Have you had any otherworldly encounters? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Pam Barlow

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