Getting a little help with a difficult goodbye

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, November 8, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

The sandy-haired 8-year-old was restless. He fidgeted with his mother’s hand. He monkeyed with his Game Boy. His father’s nursing home room at Lynnwood Manor was not an easy place to be.

Michael Feller didn’t want to be there either. Rail thin, he sat hunched on the edge of his bed, coughing and ignoring his lunch tray. Lung cancer that has spread to other parts of his body makes him struggle to speak and breathe.

At 36, Feller is way too young to die. The cruel disease doesn’t care.

No one wanted to be there Tuesday. But a time will come when Brett Feller will think of that cold November day and be glad he was there. He’ll remember a father he barely knew.

"We took some pictures yesterday," said Brett’s mother, Stacey Burch, who traveled from Minnesota to see the man who once shared her life.

The trip was paid for by the Marysville-based Foundation for Terminally Ill Adults, and arranged with help from Providence Hospice of Snohomish County. Since July, Feller has been served by the hospice, which provides end-of-life emotional support and pain management, and assists families with grief.

"Seeing us was a request Michael had," said Burch, 27, who was contacted by the hospice. The foundation, founded several years ago by a Marysville woman after her father died, paid for the air fare and lodging.

"And guess what?" asked young Brett, his face brightening. "I got to ride on two planes." It was the first time flying for both mother and son, who live in southwestern Minnesota.

Feller and Burch spent 41/2 years together, but hadn’t seen each other in nearly three years. The reunion "is something I had in mind, but I didn’t think it would come true," Feller said.

Cyndi Giles, a medical social worker with hospice, said the end of life "is about completion and resolution."

"There is a desire to resolve conflicts. Part of the role of hospice is to support people making those emotional completions," she said. "For Michael, there are some loose ends."

Feller also has a daughter, 16-year-old Carroll Pankievich of Monroe. She was also visiting her dad Tuesday.

"It’s been really good. I wish it could have been in a better situation," she said.

Hospice social worker Jim Proctor was at Lynnwood Manor to videotape the family.

"We’ll make a videotape for Brett, and tomorrow he and his dad will make plaster of Paris handprints," he said.

Proctor works specifically with children who experience loss. "We try to match the help with a child’s developmental level," he said.

While grief may not be apparent in young children, its signs can surface in teens, years after their loss, he explained. "We deal with the situation at hand and try to educate parents about addressing this over the years," Proctor said.

Hospice calls its youth services a Carousel Program, "because kids’ grief goes up and down like a carousel," he added.

"Everybody grieves in their own way," Proctor said. "It’s a painful process, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong."

November is National Hospice Month, and the agency is encouraging families facing terminal illness to reach out early for help.

"People think we’re all about dying. Once we get people comfortable, they live better," Giles said.

"It’s like the idea of birth," she said. "Thirty-five years ago, people gave birth and dad didn’t come in the hospital room. Now it’s treated not as a medical emergency, but a natural event. There’s the idea that people can have a great birth. I wish people could see there’s that same thing happening with death."

There was no joy apparent in Feller’s room. It was quiet, and sad. As you read this, Burch and her boy are already back home. They aren’t likely to see Feller again.

The hospice folks are right, though. Feller’s death will be better because he saw his son.

Stacey Burch was a woman of few words. She said it all when she leaned down and whispered to Brett, "Dad sees how much you’re like him, huh?"

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