Friday, April 6, 2012

When Angels Ascend

Life happens.  Those who live here on Wendell Foster’s Campus (WFC) get up, get dressed for their day’s activities. Some go to work at local businesses, the Opportunity Center or Hugh Sandefur Industries, while others attend appointments with their doctors, therapists, or case workers.  Many go out into the community to run errands or enjoy an activity like bowling, the museum, or a day in the park.  Others go out for breakfast, coffee or lunch with friends.  Some days they feel great, other days they don’t.  And sometimes, their family and friends get sick and die.  Just as it does for you and me, life happens for those at WFC.

Within three months after my arrival, several that we serve were hospitalized for a variety of health reasons.  In the first two months, two of our WFC friends pass away.   The first departed this life two weeks after I arrived.  I hadn’t met or known her but she left behind many memories for a saddened community of friends, staff and family who knew her.   The family held a visitation on Campus in our Young Building so residents and staff alike may pay their respect.  I admit I felt awkward about it all.  Two weeks in, I was still unfamiliar with the environment and not yet comfortable connecting with everyone on Campus.  I felt the family’s loss; anyone who’s experienced the loss of a close loved one would. 

Another Center Pointe resident, Shelby, died after the first of the New Year.  He’d been a part of the Campus community for six years, and as verbally and socially outgoing as he was, Shelby had a lot of friends here.  I’d met Shelby in passing but didn’t have the chance to get to know him either.   Our society tends to believe individuals with developmental disabilities don’t know what’s going on around them.  Some believe they don’t hear or register the rude remarks people make, or see the looks people give them, or even feel anything emotional.  Well, let’s get something straight:  these people know exactly what’s going on; how others are talking about them; how others are treating them and looking at them, and; they also know how they emotionally feel about it all. 

Granted, I briefly wondered if those attending the Campus visitation knew what was going on.  Do they understand the concept of death, and that she was no longer going to be around?  Yes, they do.  Even a child may not understand what death is, how it happens, or why, but s/he knows something is amiss when a grandparent, family member or friend is suddenly not a physical part of his or her life.  As I watched the scene for a few moments, I also wondered how they express grief, if at all.  All of us express grief, though differently.  Because of verbal challenges, emotions may be expressed in different ways, be it frustration, joy, anger, or upset.  Joy may demonstrate as a loud-volume vocalization that some may perceive as a disruptive outburst.  Some individuals chew on their hands or violently hit their heads when upset or in pain because they are unable to verbalize what they feel.  Anger and frustration is physically demonstrated with hitting, yelling uncontrollably (a different tonality and pitch than an expression of joy) and physically jerking in resistance.

So grief would be expressed as uniquely as the individual expresses one’s emotions.  At the Campus visitation, I felt the sadness in the room.  It felt eerily quiet, yet some residents were expressing themselves in low guttural sounds.  I did not attend Shelby’s funeral, but I was told a few Campus residents in attendance outwardly cried in upset with tears over the loss of their friend.   Individuals with developmental disabilities are just like us.  We are all humans in unique bodies, emotional beings that uniquely express feelings to the best of our ability.

With these two souls passing, I realized our Campus isn’t about protecting those we serve from Life, but engaging them in all that Life offers, including the death of loved ones.  Being new to the Campus, I hadn’t developed a relationship with either of the individuals who passed, and I naively believed I wouldn’t have to experience heartbreak or grief around the death of a WFC friend for a long time. 

Yet Life happens; everywhere and for everyone.  I would be no exception. The Angel of death does not discriminate against time, reminding me as I gently remind you, how important it is to treasure every moment of every opportunity we have as we experience each moment and every person at hand.
Life is fragile, and precariously changes on a dime.  Jerry, a.k.a. “Jerr Bear,” would teach me with this valuable lesson.

In the Next Blog Entry:  Farewell Jerr Bear - But that time won’t come because within two weeks of our first meeting, Jerry was hospitalized for pneumonia.  And Jerry would never come home . . .”
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