“He asked for you” – the nurse said as I entered the Oncology Ward Station. We had met several times before. I was his nutritionist and dietician. Let’s call him Jon. He needed guidance about nutrition as he had trouble swallowing. Or that is at least how it started out.
At the time, I was the nutritionist and dietician for all the cancer wards in a University Hospital. I worked both in oncology and haematology departments in- and outpatients’ wards. I saw thousands of patients and relatives for the few years that I worked there.
When you work with patients in such close proximity that are going through cancer treatment you quickly develop a mixture of an educated guess and a sixth sense about who are going to make it and who are not.
This was not one of the – going to make it - cases. Jon had trouble swallowing for a reason. And it kept getting worse and worse. This I could help him with my education and training. I did everything I could. I guided him through, gave my best advice, applied for advanced nutritional drinks, ordered specialized textured food from the kitchen that he could tolerate and swallow.
I don’t know when it changed. Why he started to talk to me about all the other things that were troubling him. I felt he had something on his mind. Were there questions about the nutritional plan that he was on? Was it something else? It turned out to be something else.
Jon was just a few years older than me. I was in my early 30s. He was in his late 30s. We both had kids of similar ages. I had one. He had two. I was healthy. He was not. We both knew that he was at the end of his life.
And that became the topic of our conversations. How horrible he felt for leaving his two kids at this young age. How he felt about leaving his ex-wife to be the sole provider for everything for their kids. How he could not talk to his friends or family about this. It was too hard. He had to show strength for them.
I told him that there were experts working in this ward that he could talk to. A psychologist and an excellent priest. I tried to convince him to talk to them about this, not me. I wasn’t sure I was qualified to do this.
He said he felt comfortable talking to me. It felt good to talk to me. I still felt I was not the right person for these types of conversations.
I talked to the hospital priest on the ward and told him about the situation. I asked him if he could talk to Jon. He said that if my patient had not himself requested to talk to a priest that it would not be helpful for him to see him. He also said that if the patient only wanted to talk to me and he was confiding in me, I should continue to see him. These were things needed to speak about and it was important conversation to have before he passed. He said that Jon obviously trusted me, and he also trusted me to have those hard conversations. His advice was to stay in the room, listen and just be with Jon as he relieved what was in his heart. The hospital priest himself had faith in me.
So that’s what I did. I gave up the idea that there was someone better than me to have those hard conversations. I came to see Jon every single day that week. I gave him nutritional advice that he already knew so we could make this a “legal” appointment and I could make notes for the records. And then I let him talk.
About everything. All the horrible things. About everything he was anxious about. All the things he loved about his kids and his ex-wife. All his sorrows. All the things he could not do anymore or ever. What he could still enjoy doing with his kids. What he missed. The failures in his life.
I sat with him. I listened. I held space for him.
Maybe it sounds horrible, but it turned out it was not as hard as I thought it would be. It was just life with all its good and bad. Jon’s situation was grim, but all the emotions were recognizable. All the feelings were very normal given the situation.
I learned that holding space came naturally to me. Even though it was hard to listen to him speak his truth, I could recognize that it was a shared human experience and all I had to do was to be there and listen. What he needed from me was holding space for him while he off-loaded everything he needed to share.
At the end of that week, he was discharged home. I never saw him again. I’ll never forget him and the lessons he taught me. I’m grateful that I could be there for him to relieved what was in his heart before his journey to a different plane.