Putting holiday sorrow on hold The terminally ill, their families find reason for cheer

December 24, 1997|By Melinda Rice | Melinda Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This Christmas will be like most others for Beverly Brande -- with one major difference.

As always, she will spend it with her nephew, John Rowe, and his family in Millersville. They have a tinsel-laden tree in the living room and a row of stockings over the fireplace. A special meal is being planned, and gifts are under the tree.

It will be like the dozens of other Christmases Brande has spent with the Rowes -- except that it is her last.

Brande, 81, is dying of colon cancer.

The holidays for families dealing with terminal illnesses are a painful contrast between the joy of the season and the sorrow of a pending loss.

"I'm just grateful that I'm here," said Brande. "I hope to enjoy this Christmas and, who knows, maybe another. I might be a miracle."

Patients such as Brande frequently must cope with their pain and fears while trying to minimize the impact on their families.

One patient in Anne Arundel Medical Center's hospice program insisted on getting her Christmas shopping done early. She wanted to make sure everyone got a present from her this year but did not want to leave her husband to do the shopping alone while grieving for her.

Others with terminal illnesses feel the best gift they can give is to hold off dying until after Christmas or Hanukkah.

"People try very hard to hang on through the holidays," said Judy N. Herman, a social worker with Hospice of the Chesapeake. "They don't want to burden their families with that memory at the holidays. It's amazing what the human spirit can do."

James "Joe" Rogers, for instance, was told Dec. 9 that he probably had about a week to live. Though bedridden and in pain from lung and brain cancer, he is hanging on. His wife, Gladys, is confident he will be with the family for Christmas.

People with loved ones facing death during the holidays tend to struggle with their grief and the day-to-day chore of caring for the patient while trying to make the holiday especially meaningful.

"If I have anything to say about it, it's going to be a great Christmas," said Georgia Ricker, whose father-in-law, Russell Ricker Sr., is dying of lung cancer.

She is expecting 23 people this year for a Christmas dinner that will include turkey, ham and a chocolate cream pie for her father-in-law.

A table in her home is stacked with unwrapped Christmas presents, lights twinkle on a Christmas tree in the corner of the living room, and she has installed a ceramic Christmas tree in her father-in-law's room.

"I cry a lot. I can't stand the thought of losing him," Georgia Ricker said.

Gladys Rogers said the key to dealing with a dying relative -- at Christmas or any other time -- is focusing on getting through each day.

"Don't dwell on the morbid part. You just do your day-to-day thing," she said.

Hospice workers said simplifying is a good solution for families in these situations.

For instance, this year the Rogerses have only one small lighted star on the outside of their house and two 3-foot-tall Christmas trees in the house -- one in the living room, another in Joe's room.

L Usually they have much more elaborate Christmas decorations.

"This Christmas it will be more of a spiritual thing," Gladys Rogers said.

Gifts are hard though, for giver and receiver, said hospice workers, who advised that practical presents are best.

Russell Ricker probably will get a lot of flannel and wool clothing this Christmas because he has a hard time keeping warm.

"It's a really tough time," said Alison A. Heckler, a bereavement counselor for Anne Arundel Medical Center's hospice program. "They're trying to make sure everyone has a perfect holiday, and they know this one is more significant for them."

Gladys Rogers said dying, although sad, is part of living.

"Treat every Christmas as though it's your last," Georgia Ricker advised. "It might be."

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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