By Karen Pugliese, MA, BCC
Recently, our staff discovered a deep purple and silver lining threaded through clouds of sadness and sorrow on our Oncology Unit as we were invited into Shera’s story.
My encounter with Shera and her family was brief to begin with. I offered encouragement and support while they maintained hope for successful treatment of her recurring cancer. Their most important goal for Shera was her presence at her daughter Gayle’s wedding – just a few weeks away. When it was determined that there were no further options for curative medical treatment, their shock and grief was overwhelming. The interdisciplinary hospital hospice team deepened and re-focused our integrated approach to their psycho-social-spiritual, as well as medical, comfort care.
At that point, my treatment plan attended to sources of realistic and meaningful hope for the family and Shera’s own spiritual goals and resources for the remainder of her life. A lifelong dream for the patient was to hear her only daughter whisper her wedding vows. The hospice nurse and I suggested to Shera and her family that they consider modifying plans for Gayle’s wedding, now just a week away. We proposed a ceremony at the bedside, followed by a brief celebration for the wedding party. By Monday, Shera’s condition worsened considerably and the family understood that she would not attend the wedding on Friday. On Tuesday, they agreed to let us help them realize Shera’s dream to hear Gayle exchange vows with her fiancé on Thursday, the day before the wedding. Shera and Gayle were Jewish, and both Shera’s spouse and Gayle’s fiancé are Catholic. I enlisted the support of Shera’s Rabbi Margaret, newly relocated from her synagogue in Boston. Margaret coordinated with Father John, and we arranged for a wedding ritual in Shera’s room, prior to the formal wedding rehearsal and dinner. Margaret and I created our to-do lists. Margaret would bring a portable Huppa, the traditional canopy under which Jewish couples recite their vows, and provide flowers for the bride and groom and their parents. I committed to transform Shera’s room and a meeting room on the unit with wedding décor in their deep purple and silver colors, provide a wedding cake and beverage for the wedding party to toast the couple, as well as the wine glass in a commemorative bag for the groom to crush as part of the traditional wedding ritual. Our concierge arranged for a gourmet cake embellished with fresh deep purple flowers and silver ribbons.
Thursday afternoon, Shera suddenly slipped into non-responsiveness. We prepared the family to make whatever decision would be best for them.
The couple stood at the bedside under a canopy embroidered with stars while Rabbi Margaret and the Father John led them in the ritual. Tears glistened in the eyes of staff as they heard Rabbi Margaret’s strong voice chanting the traditional blessings. Bittersweet tears and laughter accompanied the shattering of the wine glass as we celebrated Shera’s unshattered dream.
Just after midnight Saturday morning, moments after the actual wedding and reception had ended, Shera’s husband returned to hold her hand as she peacefully left this world. When I joined him at her bedside, he was still wearing his tuxedo. Together we placed the deep purple and silver flowers from our ceremony in her hands, and blessed her for the journey home.
Karen Pugliese is chaplain at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, IL.