“Lila held out through the night. She was an amazing woman. Little but mighty! If we were picking sides, I would choose her to be on my own team. I had brought my diffuser with essential oil the day before and had that going. Her breathing became even more labored so I sang to her. She stopped breathing three times before her last breath. It was a peaceful struggle between her body and spirit. I opened the window and let her spirit fly out. She was going in the direction of Alaska –that place she dreamed of visiting. I had this same feeling of awe during my grandchildren’s home birth. It was an honor to be there.”
Those were Rillia Johnson’s words as she spoke about her last visit to a patient she developed a friendship with, Lila. Johnson, 63, is a volunteer for Transitions Hospice.
“Looking back, I was afraid of death,” Johnson said. It was not until 15 years ago when her husband’s grandmother was admitted under hospice care that her views changed. “A lady from the hospice came to talk to the family and told us about the program. Her words were very inspiring that I was able to open up to the idea that it could be a beautiful experience for Grandma and the family.”
Her own experience of seeing some people being unable to visit their dying loved ones due to the fragileness of seeing them decline made her vow to herself. “I’ll spend time with people who do not have their loved ones with them. I want to sit with people who are alone at the end of their life. I want to hold their hand,” she stated.
She met her patient, Lila, in early February 2016. “Debby, the Volunteer Coordinator, called me and I practically jumped for joy! I had been waiting for several months!” She ordered some flowers and dropped them off at the facility’s front desk with a note telling Lila that she would come to visit her the next day.
“I was so nervous yet excited,” she vividly recalls of their first encounter. “I asked her if it was okay with her if I come visit and she said yes.”
In the beginning, it was Johnson who initiated conversations. Lila wasn’t what Johnson expected. “I expected to sit with a person, hold their hand, and encourage them to open up by listening to their stories. It was not exactly like that with Lila. She did not want me to hold her hand and at first, she was not very interested in talking. When I was not talking, we sat in silence. I had to learn to listen to her spirit.”
As Lila gradually began to feel more comfortable, their friendship blossomed. “She became comfortable and started telling me things that happened throughout her day. When she began to initiate the conversation, I was overjoyed!”
Johnson recalled, “We talked about our mutual experience of being self-employed. One time, I drove by her old gas station and took a picture of it. I showed it to her and it made her smile.” Johnson also shared that Lila became interested in stories about her (Johnson’s) family. At times, she would bring samples of her mom’s crafts which Lila enjoyed.
“There was a time when I told Lila about the asparagus coming up in my garden and she recommended that I add it to scrambled eggs but not to overcook it. Yes, I found it very delicious and I will never eat this again without thinking of her,” Johnson said.
Sometimes, they would talk about life’s important matters. Johnson recalled Lila telling her that marriage is not easy and that it takes commitment for it to succeed.
During one of their conversations, Johnson found out that Lila had travelled to Belgium to visit a friend. She asked her if there was any other place she wanted to visit. “She said out loud, Alaska!” A few days later, Johnson brought in a book of Alaska for Lila to look at.
When asked about what makes Lila smile, Johnson answered, “Lila had a good sense of humor that every time I made a joke, she would always smile. My mother-in-law also happens to know her from high school and when I told her that my mother-in-law said that she was a very hardworking lady back then, she really smiled big.”
About a week before Lila got sick, she told Johnson that she was thinking about subscribing to the newspaper. She wanted to be able to watch the obituaries to see if anyone she knew passed away and be able to send a card to the family. Johnson shared that she felt like this was a big step for Lila as she did not watch TV, read, or participate in activities. “It appeared that she was becoming interested in life again. I felt like I had helped her with this process and that by helping her, I had fulfilled my purpose,” Johnson said.
Johnson had been visiting Lila for 4 months when she passed. She recalls Lila suddenly developing an upper respiratory infection and her disappointment when she was not showing any signs of getting better. “When I saw how weak she had become, I could not imagine her getting through it.”
Johnson said that she then started talking to Lila about letting go. “It was a silent conversation between two friends and as I look back, I see that it was actually Lila talking to me about letting go.” Upon Lila’s death, Johnson felt happy and relieved for her that she was no longer in pain. “For me, though, I felt really sad. It was like there was a hole in my physical life where she once was.”
She attended Lila’s funeral and was happy to see all the photographs showing how she enjoyed her life. She shared, “I also went to the visitation. I wanted to be strong and support her family; I tried to contain my feelings but I wasn’t able to pull it all together. I became emotional.” A niece of Lila also expressed her gratitude to the hospice team and to her –for being a friend to Lila and for being there when she transitioned.
Lila’s passing made an impact to Johnson. “I had not yet been with a person during their passing. It was such a peaceful experience and I could feel angels all around us. The friendship I developed with Lila was a beautiful bond that I will never forget.”
Written by Rillia Johnson
Rillia is a mother of two and grandmother of four very unique individuals. She lives with her two best friends –her husband and dog! For 30 years, Rillia has led the fast paced life of a business owner but at age 60, decided to slow down & enjoy life. One of the interests she wanted to pursue was her dream of spending time with people who are alone at the end of their life. She has found that assisting with the transition of others is a powerful combination of joy and sorrow and is continually looking forward to her next opportunity to serve and learn.