By Grania Litwin
(Reprinted from Hospice Talk, Spring/Summer 1997)
A famous Indian mystic once wrote that people ruin their disciples by remaining always with them.
"Plants," said Swami Vivekananda at the turn of the century, "always remain small under a big tree. Once men are trained, it is essential that their leader leave them, for without his absence they cannot develop themselves."
It may be true in theory and philosophy, but I’m sure anyone who has lost a deeply-loved parent must find their death incredibly hard to bear. My sister, Erica, and I lost our mother, Eileen Learoyd, on the Victoria Hospice program three months ago and suddenly we were bereft of a person we had looked up to all our lives, who had for years been so full of life and vitality—we felt like very little plants, deprived of a vast amount of loving shade and a canopy of warmth.
When Eileen died it was like losing many people: a constant friend, sister, a demanding teacher, an amusing playmate, a fellow adventurer. She had been a newspaper reporter, best woman rifle shot in the British Commonwealth, a tireless art supporter, lover of history, globe trotter. She had many gifts including that of making lifelong friends and she corresponded with scores of people around the world. My sister and I always admired her, although sometimes it was from afar, like when we were children and she went to India for two months to study at an ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. We still have all her letters.
After her death we came to know more about Eileen—in long letters that arrived from people around the world. People who had met her during her travels wrote from Germany, Holland and Russia to say she had been a guiding force in their lives. One man wrote: "She launched me like a missile." Another said that for the past 25 years she "was the single most important person in my life."
In a strange ironic way, her death gave us a new appreciation for her life, since friends revealed parts of her history that my sister and I had never known. It was an unexpected surprise and pleasure, and something I’m sure other children have experienced when faced with this inevitable event.
My family first became familiar with Hospice ten years ago when both my father and mother became severely ill. We knew very little about palliative care then and it was an enormous emotional relief to experience the hands-on, hearts-on attention of the doctors, nurses, counsellors and volunteers at this superb organization.
The situation for both of our parents was serious, but Hospice enveloped us like a down comforter and guided us through the emotional maze so that we felt an incredible weight had been lifted. My father died after a year on the program but, miraculously, Eileen did not and she was delighted when Dr. Jim Wilde said at the time, "Eileen, you are one of our few graduates."
Although she bounced back to life she never felt really well again, and our family remained deeply attached to Hospice. Knowing firsthand about its wonderful care and counselling programs, my mother used to smile and say: "When the time comes, Hospice will look after us."
And Hospice did.
Her death was very different from my father’s. He had spent several months under intensive Hospice care, whereas my mother remained at home, gardening, writing, and being visited occasionally by a Hospice nurse or Jim Wilde, whom she adored.
One weekend in mid-November she felt she needed a rest at Hospice and checked into the beautiful, newly expanded unit. She was not the least bit anxious or fearful, quite the opposite. She felt she’d come home, and died two days later.
Erica and I found this little poem in a book by Eileen’s bedside at home, after she died. Her father had clipped it out of an old newspaper:
God and I in space alone
and nobody else in view.
"And where are the people, O Lord," I said,
"the earth below and the sky o'er head
and the dead whom once I knew?"
"That was a dream," God smiled and said,
"A dream that seemed to be true.
There were no people, living or dead,
there was no earth, and no sky o'er head;
there was only Myself -- in you."
"Why do I feel no fear," I asked,
"meeting You here this way?
For I have sinned I know full well--
and is there heaven, and is there hell,
and is this the Judgment Day?"
"Nay, those were but dreams,"
the Great God said,
"Dreams that have ceased to be.
There are no such things as fear or sin;
there is no you -- you never have been--
there is nothing at all but Me."
- Ella Wheeler Wilcox