By Gail Vencill
Olive was a born and bred Mainer, growing up in a small town, marrying and raising her family there.
She was a storyteller, and she was a story herself. Daily life provided enough stories for a book, which never got written, and her quick wit produced many a saying, repeated by herself and others when the time was appropriate.
When Olive’s first grandchild was born, Olive became known as “Mere,” not just to her first grandchild but to all those who followed. Soon her children and everyone who knew her called her “Mere.” It is likely that newer acquaintances in her life never knew her proper name. When family or community had a question the reply was “Ask Mere.”
One of her quips, used in times of frustration, was, “Just put chocolate in my mouth and let me pass peacefully.” Everyone knew that she didn’t mean she was ready to die right at that moment, and likewise, everyone knew of her passion for chocolate! And wonder of wonders, when she was dying, her family put a small piece of chocolate in her mouth.
I never knew “Mere.” I heard the story from a family preparing to complete their advance directive. I can imagine her as a feisty woman, and a lot of fun. What a legacy it is to tell stories that keep memories of a person so loved alive for generations to come. It is stories and experiences that guide us in making our own decisions.
I learned Mere’s story because I am a volunteer for Healthy Peninsula. My role is as a facilitator for the Choices That Matter program. I designed a Table Talk format for meeting with people to talk about critical care and end of life issues. Instead of a workshop, I meet with individuals or small groups in homes, or another place of choice, to provide assistance in completing an advance directive.
It seems like such a serious issue, and it is, however, conversations bring lighthearted moments, such as the story of “Mere.” Why not include what you hope your last food can be? I wrote in my advance directive that I don’t like to take pills with water. I prefer something with flavor! I can swallow better when there is flavor. The little things are important!
In addition to the care one would like to receive in times of a critical illness or end of life, the advance directive called “5 Wishes” gives opportunity for personal notations. A helpful resource is a booklet titled “Your Conversation Starter Kit.” A conversation can provide a shared understanding of what matters most to you and your loved ones. Those conversations make it easier to make the bigger decisions.
One couple I met with shared a concern I hear from many. They had made the decision to complete an advance directive. If it happened that one of them could not speak for the other, they wanted their daughter to be their advocate, the person to speak for them when they were unable to speak for themselves. The difficulty was in bringing up the conversation with their daughter. They didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable or sad at the thought. Together we role-played on how the conversation might be introduced. When the right time came, they were surprised at their daughter’s response. She said, “When my friend Kelly’s mother became sick so suddenly and was in a coma for so long, I wondered how I would ever make the decisions she had to make.” A life experience had made her realize the importance of knowing her parents’ wishes.
For many, this is the season of gift giving. The greatest gift you can offer to your family is the gift of peace that comes from knowing your wishes in the event of illness and/or death. And knowing you have done that you have given the gift of peace to yourself.
It is a gift that does not cost money.
Gail Vencill is a Choices That Matter trained facilitator and a member of the Advisory Board for Choices That Matter, a community project anchored by Healthy Peninsula through which partners (including Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, Hospice Volunteers of Hancock County, Blue Hill Public Library, Age-Friendly Coastal Communities, and Northern Light Home Health & Hospice) have designed a variety of conversational tools, information, resources, and educational techniques to help individuals, families, health care providers and communities make thoughtful and informed end-of-life care decisions.