Learning How To Live From The Dying: Part I


A few months ago I learned that my dog Billy has skin cancer.  To pay for the cost of his care I decided to go back to work.  Since I had long experience as a hospice volunteer in several states I decided take a job as an in-home hospice caregiver. 

My first assignment was to give care to and 89-year-old woman who I will call her Molly.  Her regular caregiver was on vacation for a couple of weeks so I was filling in.  She has  a rare form of  Parkinson’s disease that has attacked her  throat and her ability to speak.  Her husband Harry who is 82 is her primary caregiver.  He is a difficult man who is very critical but is attentive to his wife’s care.  Molly also has a daughter who lives in a distant state.  She is very angry at and suspicious of Harry and the two of them can’t get along. Neither the husband nor the daughter are able to express much affection to Molly.

Each day when I arrived Harry would have already given Molly her breakfast and I would try to get her up for the day.  She didn’t have much to look forward to since she would spend most of the day in front of the television watching reruns of Bonanza and Matlock.  So I looked for things that would make her the day more interesting.  First, after getting her dressed I would take her for a walk in the streets outside her home.  We would stop and look at flowers or an interesting bird or even a new car.  While I pushed her wheelchair I would recount tales of my life especially foreign travels and tell her about the people and funny or unusual experiences.  Sometimes she would try to talk with me but she could only manage a hissing sound.  At first I found it difficult to talk about myself but I realized that it was comforting for her to hear these stories and it built a connection between us.

One day I decided to take her out to a local restaurant that offers a free slice of pie on Wednesdays.  It was a difficult a project to get Molly into my car with her wheelchair but she was happy to get out of the house. Molly had a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee.  It took over an hour for her to eat it and she ate every bite. When she had finished and I started to get her ready to go to the car she looked at me and smiled and said the only word she ever spoke to me, she said “good.” 

An unfortunate incident occurred  her husband put her in her wheelchair in the yard to get some sun.  Somehow she fell over into a cactus plant. She went to the emergency room for treatment as she had reacted to the poison in the plant.  A few days later I was filling in for her regular care giver and took her to a new doctor to look at her throat.  While we were in the waiting room I asked her how she was and if the cactus wounds were painful.  She shook her head and held out her arm to show me the large bumps that were a reaction to the cactus.  Impulsively I kissed the spot and told her that it would make it well.  She laughed!  Never before had I seen her laugh or have any instinct to mirth so we laughed together.

What I learned while caring for Molly is how important it is to find moments of joy in the life of those who have lost so much.  Neither her husband nor her daughter were capable of giving her much affection so I would lavish hugs and kisses on her, telling her she looked pretty after I had combed her hair and she had put on lipstick.  How much she needed the affirmation and how good it felt to give it to her.

The funny thing is that being able to help her helped my soul heal.  Being old and without family means that I rarely find moments in the normal course of my life when I am able to help someone.  What a joy it is to do so.

Because Molly and Harry aren’t believers the most important thing I could do was to pray for them and I still do.  I ask you to pray for them as well.

Anti-Depressant Drugs Can Cause Suicidal Thoughts


Last week I went to a psychiatrist for help with a high level of anxiety . He prescribed  a low dose Lexapro, an antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug.  My appointment ran for 1 1/2 hours and covered my background.  He diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by the suicide of my husband a year and a half ago and by childhood physical abuse and neglect. 

I believe this is the correct diagnosis.  However the drug is the wrong drug.  I started having suicidal thoughts within 5 days.  I read the literature that says the drug can cause suicidal thoughts in people less than 24 years old.  The pharmacist I spoke with said that while it is rare the drug can trigger suicidal thoughts in older people as well. I sent an email to the psychiatrist who responded  with questions about what I had done to develop new interests.  I reminded him that I have plenty of interests and am well-disciplined in keeping up a daily regimen of activities.  I questioned whether he knew which patient he was emailing. He sent me another email which did not address the possibility that the drug was causing the problem.  Yesterday I cancelled my next appointment and went off the drug.  This morning I am already having fewer suicidal thoughts.  I believe that this is an example of a serious problem within the mental health profession. 

I went to this psychiatrist because he recommended by a psychiatric case worker who was sympathetic to my having been forcibly sent to the hospital by a doctor when I asked for an antidepressant drug a few weeks ago and although I admitted to suicidal thoughts I stated I had no intention of following through with the act.  The case worker told me that competent psychiatrists no longer take insurance and I would have to self pay.   Obviously this is not true of all psychiatrists who take insurance but the ones that I have had under medicare were clearly burned out and not interested.  They were unreachable in a crisis.  So I thought I would spend a precious $250 to see a private one.  I would have to say he was just as burned out as the medicare psychiatrists.

Perhaps the problem is that the profession is trying to treat a medley of problems with drugs.  I think that the primary cause of mental problems is probably spiritual.  Drugs may offer a bridge of support to the patient while therapy and spiritual guidance  have a chance to work.  However, in the last 20 years insurance companies have decided to reimburse psychiatrists for drug treatment only.  Any therapy is left to social workers who are much less trained.  These workers are perhaps competent to moderate in couples therapy and problems that are amenable to practical solutions.  This leaves people with serious disorders with no real alternative for help with resolving deep issues.

Since I am a Christian I have support unavailable to many patients.  Prayer definitely helps me through crises.  I just wish that I could find help in the mental health community that wasn’t outright hostile or simply concerned about avoiding law suits. This is realistic fear for mental health professionals since patients are often eager to sue and lawyers are certainly eager to oblige them. I think only a complete overhaul of the system can remedy the situation.

All Alone With Our God


God is the cornerstone of life for the lonely. We must reach out to God in our aloneness for no one is near to comfort us. Loneliness gives us reason to pray, to draw closer to God. Being old and finding oneself alone is intimidating at first but finally it is known as a gift. It makes us put God at the center of our lives.
I came late to God. An atheist childhood put God out of reach. God is for the weak; they told me, for those who can’t face their contingency and final aloneness in a vast universe that is indifferent to man. Each man’s life is all there is and he can make his own rules since man is his own God. A cold comfort to a child longing for real meaning that can only come from something greater than the self.
In childhood survival and gaining the needed skills to survive occupy us. Even if we are not loved we are busy preparing for the everydayness of adult life. Survival of abusive parents suffices as a reason to exist. Puzzling out the whys of the daily indignities can occupy our minds in the quiet moments if we haven’t yet met our Savior.
Then comes early adulthood and career and perhaps a marriage or two for which we finally realize we are ill-equipped. Being raised without love leave raw burns on our soul and doesn’t give us a basis to understand the other in our lives. Finally we realize it is best to have no children for we fear that having been bitten by the vampire of cruelty in childhood that we might now be vampires ourselves. The one thing we vowed was to never hurt a child.
Finally in middle age, the unimaginable happens. For me, the glorious music of chant told me what I needed to know. That the God for whom I longed, longed for me. I had always been told that God didn’t exist, that he was the crutch of the weak. Finally I find myself weak and there he is. How right my self-sufficient parents had been, only in our sorrow and weakness did I allow my God come to me.
Now I am old. My beloved husband is gone. Friends are scattered across the land and they spend their time in the business of their own lives. Yet God is there for me. He fills my days with his voice in his Word. My prayers are my constant companion. He brings people into my life who need my help for a time and then they get on with their lives.
When I was a hospice volunteer, I found it odd that people would die when I left the room. After hours of sitting with the dying, praying for them, holding their hands I would be forced to leave the room for a brief time. It was then when they were finally alone, they chose to die. Now I understand.
Finally we are all alone with our God.

Coping with Suicidal Thoughts


Most people have had thoughts of ending their life.  When you are grieving the loss of someone you love, or when you are lonely or afraid, it is common to think of it.  But it is one thing to think about suicide and quite another to feel a compulsion to kill yourself.

Since my husband killed himself nearly two years ago, thoughts of suicide have been my frequent companion.  Several times these thoughts have resulted in my going to the hospital for evaluation.  Sometimes, but not always, I am also depressed when I feel this terrible compulsion to kill myself.  I call these compulsive thoughts of suicide the Whisperer because it feels like someone is urging me to kill myself.

I have worked out a strategy to handle suicidal impulses.   It isn’t a sure-fire solution but it does help.

First, I pray.  I can find comfort and assurance in prayer.  Reading the Bible and reading authors whose work I can trust also fall under this dictum of prayer.  I  find especially helpful a couple of books by Patrick Reardon, The Trial of Job and The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ.  Understanding that Jesus  was really human, that when he underwent temptation he felt tempted.  When Satan took Jesus into the desert at the beginning of his ministry and told him to throw himself off the mountain because God would save him, we know that Jesus was genuinely tested.  He wasn’t walking through it like playing a part in a film.  He felt the temptation.   This makes him a savior I can relate to.  If you search back through my other posts you will find that Job’s trials helped me to understand the impulse to kill myself as a trial by God.  God isn’t standing aside being repulsed by my urge to kill myself, he is loving me and giving me the spiritual strength to endure.

What if I can’t pray?  Then I ask the Holy Spirit to pray for me as described in Romans 8:26.  I also ask friends and fellow Christians to pray for me that God will comfort me and strengthen me.  Send me a comment asking for prayer and I and others who read this site will pray or you.  Not just once but every day.

Second, I do the things I love even though I don’t want to do them.  This takes tremendous will.  I love to hike and since I  live in New Mexico near the Sandia Mountains I am able to hike when I want.  It always helps.  I come back restored to who I really am.  Sometimes I go every day.  Just knowing that I can go hiking the next morning gets me through those terrible nights with the Whisperer.   I also take photographs when I hike and sometimes I  go out in the city to take photographs in the evenings when the Whisperer afflicts me.   Seeing through a camera lens changes my perspective and cleanses me of my own preoccupations with age, loneliness and fear.  In the evening  I go to places where people are shopping or eating in restaurants and take photos of faces and grouping that catch my eye.  Amazing how purifying that is.

Third,  I seek out people.  Since I don’t have many friends, I usually go to a restaurant where I know the servers and talk with them.  We just talk stuff.  None of them know my problem.  They tell me about their kids and problems with jobs and sick parents.  Somehow caring about another person helps me to forget myself.   It always takes an effort to get beyond myself but when I do I find it liberating.

Fourth,  Send me an email at msscholz@aol.com and I will respond as soon as I get it.  Let me know your telephone number if you want me to call you.  Maybe we can pray and talk and that will help.  If you don’t want to email me then call the national suicide hotline and they will connect you with local help.  The number is 1-800-273-8255.

Just remember, Friend, that if you can make it until the morning or for a couple of hours you will see things differently.   Whether you are lonely or afraid, abused or old.  Whatever the problem, it won’t go away but it can get better.  There are people who care.

I care and want  to help you.  I will pray with you, listen to you and give you a shoulder to cry on.  Just don’t take that final step.  You will be glad you didn’t and so will I and a lot of other people who read this blog.

God’s Final Word to Job


Presuming on God is a dangerous business and I wish not to be guilty of it. By comparing my trial with that of Job I don’t compare myself to the great Job. But I believe we are given the story of Job to understand what it means to be tried by God. Right now, I wonder if my temptation to suicide is subsiding and may not continue. What am I to make of this trial? What lesson am I meant to learn? What is the meaning of this experience? Of course, this may simply be a lull in the Whisperer’s attack.

God addresses Job who is silent before God. Why? God hasn’t answered Job’s questions about his suffering. Yet God has satisfied Job because God has spoken to him and that was what job really wanted. God then asks Job who is more righteous God or himself based on the evidence.

In Job 40:8 God asks:
“Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

So what did Job gain from this trial? According to Fr. Patrick Reardon, “One observes in Job’s repentance that he arrives at a new state of humility, not from consideration of his own sins, but by his experience of God’s overwhelming power and glory. When God finally reveals Himself to Job, the revelation is different from anything Job either sought or expected, but clearly he is not disappointed.”

The modern world does not greatly value humility. Certainly it is rare for parents to stress humility as a virtue for their children. You need self-confidence is a common dictum to children. I am no different. I have valued my independence and self-reliance as much as or more than most modern people do. My husband’s suicide and the subsequent deterioration in my mental state with suicidal ideation has certainly caused me to reconsider my reliance on self. In my current state self-reliance seems delusional. In my temptation to suicide God’s power and my weakness are exposed to both me and all the world. Fr. Reardon says of Job’s trial “Instead of pleading his (God’s) case with Job, as Job has often requested, the Lord deals with him as with a child. Job must return to his childhood sense of awe and of wonder. It is the Lord’s last word in the argument.” Certainly as a result of my temptation and trial I am more aware of my complete dependence on God. Every breath I take is because he wills it. This is something I have always known intellectually but it now has an immediacy and actuality that is more real than all my human concerns.

In wisdom literature the doubling of Job’s fortune and life and God’s direct interaction with Job are definitive. In my life I learn more slowly and I must wait to see if this trial is ending or if it is simply an interlude. In either case I am grateful for the much-needed rest.

Aging and Suicide


Today a release in the Albuquerque Journal Staff Wire headlined “Brother, Sister Die in Likely Murder-Suicide.” Police identified the victims as Kenneth and Shirley Robson, both of whom were in their 60’s. The brother was a caretaker for his sister and they lived in a mobile home. Police detectives speculate that either health or financial problems prompted the murder-suicide.

Perhaps their problems might have been spiritual. I wonder if loneliness and fear were the motivating factors. Our society is one that promises a “safety net”. But what is the safety net for despair? Did the brother in seeking help for his sister get handed a lot of forms with stern admonitions about qualifying for help. Was he met with hard faces at the agencies where he went for help? Did he belong to a church? Did the church look beneath the surface to see the despair? Or were they just overlooked by all these organizations of help as a an unnecessary impediment to their mission.

People over 80 have the highest rates of suicide in the country. Why? They are too often left alone to cope on insufficient incomes and illness without people who befriend them.

While there are many people genuinely trying to help people like the Robsons, I don’t think that government agencies or even churches are the best way for them to get help. Neighbor’s who look out for warning signs, who visit even though they have busy lives, who try to understand the neglected and desperate are the foundation of help. It is so easy to turn a blind eye to the desperate.

How often when I have tried to help someone who seemed needy have I been rebuffed or perhaps my help was abused; the need was feigned. As a consequence I have found myself looking away from problems and letting myself grow cynical. When I do this I miss the chance to help someone genuinely in need that God is calling me to help. I am sure that what I have done is a terrible thing in th<a
Let's look around us and notice those in need. Those who aren't visited, who remain alone day after day and remember what our Lord said about helping our neighbor and the widow and the orphan. Let's not wait for the agency to step in but get them the help they need.

Please let me know what you think about the Robson's. It may be that nothing could have been done. Yet again something might have been done and wasn't. God forgive us if that is true.

Waiting at the Closed Door


Finally the door is opening. The Whisperer hasn’t been heard from in four days. Maybe because I’ve faced the closed-door in my life and made some difficult decisions.

On Friday I decided to move from Albuquerque to Santa Fé. This was unthinkable before because by moving I am leaving my husband behind, or at least our last years together before his suicide.

It’s strange but this town has never felt right. It isn’t a fit for me and I don’t know why. I suspect it has to do with all I suffered here.

I feel friendless although I do have what I would call practical friends. Those who share a meal with me at a restaurant, those I see at church or even those I exchange birthday cards with. But I haven’t met anyone in Albuquerque who shares their life with me. Perhaps the best way to characterize Albuquerque is that it is an antiseptic that may have been good for my wounds.

This morning, Sunday, I went to Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Santa Fé. I used to tell my therapist when I lost my faith that I missed God and I missed liturgy. When I received my faith back, I got God back. Today I got liturgy back. With it, I prayed with all my senses as well as with my mind and my soul. It was glorious and exhausting. I guess it was a return to the very thing that brought me to Christ.

The Orthodox church this Sunday commemorates the women who came to the tomb carrying myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body. The priest said the women were the first apostles. I like that. He pointed out that timing was everything. Had they come to the tomb sooner the stone would have still been in place. Instead they waited and when they came the stone was rolled back and they were the first to know that Christ was no longer in the tomb. The priest said that to wait for a closed-door to open or in the women’s case, a huge rock to be rolled back is not a vacant activity devoid of meaning. It is a time of active waiting and often yes, a time of suffering. But if we don’t wait for God’s time then we may miss the resurrection.

All of this makes me think of the trial of Job. Fr. Pat Reardon says that Job didn’t know that God was trying him. His friends said that because God was just then Job’s punishment was for sin he wouldn’t admit. Job knew he had not sinned. However, God knew, Satan knew and the Bible reader knows that Job’s suffering was a trial that gave God glory in light of Satan’s taunts. That Job suffered because God allowed it. The odd thing is that God never told Job why he suffered. But it was enough for Job to understand how great God is. He understood that his questions needed no answer in light of who God is.

Now that is an example I would like to follow.