Lesson #3 from Dad’s end-of-life journey was all about the search for meaning. Eden Alternative Principle Six states: “Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit. The opportunity to do things we find meaningful is essential to human health.” When we teach this principle, we spend a good deal of time talking about how to fill an Elder’s day with meaningful events or “things to do.” Dad taught me a whole new depth to the search for meaning.
When I arrived at his bedside in the ICU, Dad had just been through surgery. He was still asleep. The first search for meaning had to do with the doctors and nurses and all the equipment surrounding Dad. The room had a very large monitor with lots of leads that provided second-by-second feedback on his blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and the pressure in his brain. Over the course of the 10 days we spent in the ICU, I was astounded at how easily we were sucked into the vortex of assigning meaning to those values on that monitor. We were constantly looking for that machine to tell us how Dad was doing, was he ever going to wake up and talk to us? Every word spoken by the doctors and nurses was dissected to see what meaning it carried for us and for Dad. Of course, the meaning was not in the machine, or in every word the healthcare professionals said, it was in the relationships we have as a family. It had been a while since all five of us were alone together without our extended families and other distractions. In the end, it was our coming together to support each other through this journey that held the real meaning.
The other amazing thing that happened was how we applied meaning to the simplest of things that happened. Mom and Dad had a friend who sent a Bible verse to Mom every day. We clung to every word seeking the meaning it would bring us for the day. One day the verse did not come and we were stunned at how lost we felt. One day the car broke down on the way home from the hospital and a complete stranger happened to be in the parking spot next to where we coaxed the car to stop. He had all the tools we needed to fix the car. Boy, did we put a lot of meaning in that experience. Then, there was a training scheduled which was going to cause me to leave Mom alone with Dad’s situation. It was postponed due to a situation the host organization was having. That was a gift that provided a lot of meaning. We were desperate to find the meaning in every moment of that difficult three-week journey, and we found it and relished in it. We needed it to sustain our well-being through this journey with Dad.
Where do you find meaning? It is more than just the things we do. How can we heighten our awareness and bring the meaning into focus more clearly? How much value would it add to give ourselves permission to slow down and reflect on the meaning behind what people say, or do, or events that happen, or things that go well or fail?
By Denise Hyde, Community Builder, Eden Alternative (USA)