At age seventeen, my mother was recruited for the war effort. WWII returning veterans needed psychiatric nurses, so the VA targeted young women who had recently graduated from high school with top honors. They wanted girls who were quick studies for their one-year intensive program, and young Delores Stroble was just what the doctors ordered. So Mom left rural Minnesota farm life to enter this program in the big city. She was smart, but she was green, and there were certain aspects of psychiatric training that were pretty frightening, as you can well imagine! But the one encounter that left the most lasting impression on her was not with one of the huge, scary, physically fit patients… it was an encounter with a comatose patient who was dying. The good news for this man was that the psychiatric ward did not want him to die alone. The bad news for Delores was that she had no idea what to do for him – or for herself – when she was assigned to “stay with him until he dies”. She was a good and practicing Catholic, so she prayed; but still, she was shaken. Mom can still recite part of a longer poem that she penned that night. Sitting cross-legged in a closet (her only privacy in a dorm full of other nursing recruits), she wrote:
I stood with Death tonight beside a stranger’s bed.
Cold Death, when Life had fled
he touched my heart and burned
an image there. I yearned
to loose his hold, mere mortal I,
but helpless watched
a stranger die.– Delores M. Stroble Etchart
This was very clearly a spiritual experience for a young nursing student: worthy of training and tools, both during and after the actual death. Perhaps now in 2011 — as Mom’s youngest grandchild crosses the threshold from the tender age of seventeen into adulthood – this generation can benefit from the paradigm shift that Sacred Dying Foundation is working towards with its Vigil Training series.