Kristen Rajchel pauses for a long time, trying to think of the words to describe what happened to her last year, when her parents died within five months of each other.
Because there are no words to describe it, really.
It rearranged our family. Significantly, she says at last. Now we have a new normal.
One sign of how rearranged her life has become is that her church, long a bedrock in her life and a place of comfort, is now a place she almost avoids. Instead of her home parish of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, she makes her husband, Joe, take her and daughter Mary almost anywhere else, whether it’s St. Patrick’s in Arcola, St. Peter’s downtown or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Anywhere but there: Where the funerals were.
Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, she said. I usually just try to sit there and try not to be obvious that I’m sitting there sobbing in the back.
Meanwhile, the place you would think would bring her the most grief, the place where you can easily imagine the breakdowns and the tears – the place where both parents died – is the place that instead gives her the most comfort.
Some people after a devastating loss will bury themselves in their work. They’ll throw themselves into their career in an attempt to block out the pain, or at least escape it for a while through productivity.
This is something different.
It’s different because Kristen works at Visiting Nurse & Hospice Home, the place where her stepfather Frank Sieh died of congestive heart failure Feb. 13, 2011, and where Joyce Sieh died of ovarian cancer July 21, each after staying about five days at the facility.
It is an oasis, she says of the hospice on Homestead Road. A comforting oasis in a time of need.
A seed was planted
Kristen never intended to work for a hospice – her college degree is in journalism.
After graduating from Homestead High School and studying at the University of South Carolina, she worked in television production at WFWA-TV, Fort Wayne’s PBS station, and later at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
Then a friend said she should apply for the position of director of development and community awareness at the hospice.
I said, Hospice? Why hospice?’ she recalls.
But a job there would be more convenient than driving downtown, and both her parents were retired social workers.
Frank Sieh helped found Catholic Social Services in Sioux Falls, S.D., which is where he met the widowed Joyce Lindsay, a social worker there. In the days before infant car seats or even seat belt use, Kristen would ride with her mother on trips across the endless South Dakota prairies delivering newborns to adoptive couples.
I rode with Mom all over the state, she said. I’d sit in the front seat next to her, holding the babies.
Frank and Joyce married in 1972, and by 1975 had moved to Fort Wayne, where Frank was executive director of Family & Children’s Services, until he retired in 1983.
After retirement, Frank and Joyce became master gardeners and volunteered at the Lawton Park greenhouse. They also delivered groceries for the St. Vincent DePaul Society at St. Elizabeth, learned Spanish and were avid bird watchers.
But over the years, their health failed. Eventually, both moved to St. Anne Home & Retirement Community, where – despite their health difficulties – they were happy living near a wing full of retired priests who were crack bridge players.
By then, Kristen had already been working at Visiting Nurse & Hospice Home for several years – maybe because of their social work past.
I think I had a seed planted in me a long time ago, she says now. But it never occurred to me I would be utilizing my agency’s services for my own family.
‘Miss them terribly’
There are many misconceptions about hospice care, fed by the fact that most of us really don’t want to think about hospice.
One misconception is that you have to go to hospice. In fact, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, most hospice care occurs where the patient lives.
In 2010, two-thirds of hospice patients died not at hospice but at their private home or in a nursing home or residential facility, visited and cared for by hospice nurses. Only 22 percent died at a hospice facility.
Another misconception is that you can’t afford hospice care. In fact, 89 percent of patient days at hospice are paid for by Medicare, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization says, and an additional 4 percent by Medicaid.
That care, according to the hospice organization, includes managing the patient’s pain; providing drugs, medical supplies and equipment; educating family members on how to care for the patient; and providing grief counseling for family and friends.
They help with communication so that everyone understands what is happening, even the sibling flying in from California who doesn’t know there’s no making Mom better and is outraged there isn’t more treatment.
They can coordinate among multiple doctors so all the medical decisions work in conjunction. They can help with the paperwork and the planning.
And they care.
Not only do many hospice employees feel called to the work, but many have also had their own parents go through hospice, so they understand in ways others cannot.
I’m not glad my parents are gone, and I miss them terribly, Kristen said. But I have a deeper understanding of what we do now because I’ve been in the family’s shoes.
As she walks through the hospice’s gardens – just springing to life – she talks about the weddings there, the baptisms, the newborns brought so grandparents can hold them before letting go, and the way everything here seems to work together to bring a peaceful closure in the midst of what can feel like devastation.
That’s huge. Huge, she says. You can’t put a price on that.
Even the sparrow
Just like grief, comfort comes in many forms, and often unexpected ones.
Maybe those moments are manufactured, Kristen says in retrospect, a way for the survivors to give themselves permission to heal, if only a little.
But comfort is comfort, and there are times in your life when you take what you can get.
For Kristen’s family, one of those moments came not long after her mother was buried alongside Frank in a Roanoke cemetery. They were visiting the graves when two bluebirds suddenly alighted.
We probably do that to console ourselves, she says of our tendency to attribute meaning to coincidence. But try convincing yourself when you’re standing over the graves of your bird-watching parents and there are those birds, looking at you.
These two bluebirds came and sat nearby, she says, still in wonder. And we just knew it was them.