The Gift Of Understanding
Lisa Norton, Development & Communications Coordinator
April 17, 2020
When Lori Olenski lost her son, it was unexpected. She knew he had cancer, and he was receiving hospice care in her home, but she thought — and she hoped — that he had more time.
“He was young and he was really a big, strong guy,” she said. Just a week before her son Jesse died, he was up and walking around with a cane, Lori explained. “I guess he was fighting because he was young and strong. And then all of a sudden, everything just went downhill really fast.”
Jesse tried to prepare Lori. He had been in the Angela Hospice Care Center for pain control for about two weeks. Then while he was back at home, on New Year’s Eve, he told Lori, “Mom, I have to go back. I don’t have that much longer to live.”
When he was being readmitted to the Care Center, Lori remembered Jesse telling the nurse, “My mom’s not going to take this well because she has a soft heart.” Lori teared up a bit at this remembrance, but she also remembered something else he told a nurse that brought her a measure of comfort: he said, “I’m not afraid to die.
Lori saw a real transformation come over her son. “He really was peaceful about it,” she said. “It was amazing…because months before that, he was very different in the early stages of the cancer. But in the end, he was just very peaceful.”
She saw him making the most of his remaining time while at the Care Center too. “He talked to everyone, he loved it,” she said. “He had all these interactions and connections, which was really beautiful.”
He especially liked talking about music. Jesse was a musician, and he loved to hear the piano players that would come to the Care Center.
Jesse passed on January 9 at 12:30 a.m. He was 46 years old.
Lori knew she wanted to take advantage of the bereavement services Angela Hospice provides. She began attending grief support group meetings.
“It’s beneficial to be around people who have also had a loss,” she said, “because you always feel like no one understands. So you have that connection. Sitting in group is the one time I feel…” Lori exhaled before continuing, “people understand me.”
She’s been experiencing the full benefit of Angela Hospice’s donor-supported bereavement programming, meeting with social worker Debbie Vallandingham for one-on-one grief counseling as well.
“I had all this stuff in me I needed to get out, and some things were just too personal to talk about [in the group],” she explained. And while friends and family wanted to help, they really didn’t know what to say. “With someone who is trained in bereavement, they can give suggestions…Debbie knows what helps.”
One of Debbie’s suggestions that has worked for Lori is journaling her feelings every day. “It’s really helpful, because you can just get that out of you,” Lori said. “And you can start to understand what you’re feeling when you’re writing it down.”
Another of Debbie’s suggestions helped Lori find joy in two of her favorite hobbies again. She was having trouble focusing when she would try to read, and when she would go on walks, her thoughts would turn to the things that made her sad. So Debbie suggested she try listening to audio books while she went on her walks. It was a great solution for Lori.
Taking part in the grief support groups and counseling haven’t made Lori’s grief go away, but they have made it a bit easier to live with. She wants to one day become an Angela Hospice volunteer, to pay back what meant so much to her and Jesse at the end of his life. But for now, she hopes sharing her story might help someone too, by letting them know they’re not alone, and encouraging them to reach out if they need help.
“When you sit at home alone with your grief, you just feel like you’re alone in the world,” she said. “It’s not a good place to be. When you get in the group and with all these other people who are grieving too, it gives you hope and it makes you feel better. I think it’s so important to do that.”