Sharing life's hardships and joys: A bittersweet story of life and death
On a sunny day in July, a couple stood together in a dimly lit room - he in a suit and she in a simple white dress - and quietly exchanged their wedding vows. A harpist softly strummed a tune that wafted in through an open window.
"Today, I choose you to be mine. I accept you as you are and offer myself in return. I will care for you, stand beside you and share all of life's hardships and joys from this day forward, for the rest of our lives," they said to each other.
When John and Lanaya Schnettler first began to plan their wedding, they imagined a big celebration with loads of family and friends.
"I'm a teacher which translates to 'planner' in all other areas of my life," Lanaya said. "You bet you bottom dollar that John and I had planned our wedding and chose every vendor carefully so they could help us create the beautiful traditional wedding we had in our minds' eye. It included our church, extended family, large reception and dancing; the whole shebang."
Then COVID hit and forced them to make some tough choices and big sacrifices. After weighing their options, the couple quickly shifted gears and settled on a small gathering at a charming venue in Foley.
On top of the already challenging pandemic, John's mom, Patricia, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2018, took a turn for the worse. Even though she was determined to be there for their big day, her failing health landed her at Quiet Oaks Hospice House in St Augusta just two weeks before the wedding.
"Patricia's goal of attending the wedding was clear," said Joe Petersen, one of the RN's who cared for Patricia at Quiet Oaks. "Part of my role as a nurse is to support the goals of the residents with whom I work. I knew Patricia wanted to attend her son's wedding. Given her health status, I also knew that it was a near impossibility and that it would cause significant discomfort for her. The next step is to think of ways that we can adapt to meet her goals. Linda Allen, Patricia's children and I sat down to discuss alternatives and that is where it was decided that the couple would recite their wedding vows at the bedside."
Patricia was a loving mother, John said, who always made everyone feel welcome. She was so caring and nonjudgmental, she just wanted everyone around her to be happy all the time," Lanaya added.
Quickly springing into action, the staff at Quiet Oaks rallied around John and Lanaya, organizing a simple but special occasion. The day before their planned ceremony, John and Lanaya went to Patricia's room where they lovingly spoke their vows aloud for the first time.
"Even though she couldn't be with us at the wedding, she got to hear us say the most important part of the wedding," Lanaya said.
"I knew she could hear us," John added, "and I'm pretty sure that's what was most important to her."
Linda Allen, Director of Quiet Oaks, said that hearing is often the last sense to go. "We believe Pat could hear their exchange and feel their presence," she said.
Afterward, the couple gathered outside Pat's window and shared brownies and lemonade with John's brother and his wife and son. "It was like a mini-wedding reception," Lanaya said. "It felt special."
Patricia died the next day - July 24 - on John and Lanaya's wedding day.
"It was really hard to celebrate and also grieve at the same. I didn't realize a person could feel joy and sadness with complete force in such a small amount of time," Lanaya said. "We feel entirely blessed to have had such a wonderful wedding day, but it's the relationships with our friends and family that made it so beautiful. If there's any lesson that we have learned through all of this, it is to treasure all the moments we get to share with our favorite people because those fleeting moments are truly the most important."
Linda explained that the dying process is a time of intuitiveness for the one who is leaving this world. "A lot of work is happening within the patient. There is a lot of reconciling that has to happen between this life and the next. For Patricia to let go that day was an affirmation that it was what she needed and wanted to reconcile in this world," Linda said.
To add to the already emotionally-charged story, Patricia's mother, Virginia, entered Quiet Oaks the day before their wedding and died just days after.
"What was unique about Virginia's situation is coming to hospice after her daughter and in the same small facility," Joe said. "It was memorable that they both were able to share a moment together, to be in the same room together, to honor each other's lives and say goodbye. they both came to Quiet Oaks within days of one another and both passed away a few days apart as well. I'm sure there was an indescribable depth of connection the two of them were experiencing at that moment."
John and Lanaya felt that the staff at Quiet Oaks went out of their way to make the whole experience special for them as well as to give Patricia and Virginia the highest level of care.
"The whole concept of Quiet Oaks is accommodating. It doesn't feel institutional at all, " John said. "They took the time to explain things to us. Some of the things they tell you, you aren't ready to hear the first time and having that patience to repeat things over again goes a long way."
Joe was among the few privileged to care for Patricia and Virginia in their last days and he, too, was touched by the experiences they shared. "The families of our residents at Quiet Oaks have the hardest job, and that is losing a loved one. It is our honor as staff and volunteers at Quiet Oaks to play a part in facilitating these experiences," he said.
John and Lanaya vowed to stand beside each other and share all of life's hardships and joys and certainly, those days at Quiet Oaks were filled with both the hardships of grief and loss and the joy of celebrating life and love.
"Every story is special, every story has an element that stands out," Linda said. "The work we do in helping patients and families with rituals and time of remembrance is something they can cherish. The last moments they had are memories they will hold close to their hearts forever."