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A companion at the end of life

Pete FowlerGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Post Independent/Pete Fowler
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. John Lutgring talks about death.A story from a loved one during the last days of a person’s life. Saying thank you, goodbye, forgiving each other. Things that matter.He smiles easily discussing the kinds of things he hears and sees. As a social worker and bereavement counselor at the Roaring Fork Hospice, he’s learned a thing or two from an often avoided subject. Death.”Usually people have something they want to accomplish at end of life,” he said. “If we create a safe environment, that quality might happen for them.”Dying people often want to mentally complete a relationship or fulfill some role.Lutgring said he once convinced a man dying of cancer not to kill himself with medications. The man admitted he was a leader among his family and friends and hadn’t experienced the deaths of others in his group.”He thought the honorable thing to do was not put his family through a difficult time,” Lutgring said. “I asked him, ‘Is it important that you teach the others how to do end of life and to receive all of them before he died?'”It was.

“He actually found a purpose in completing his leadership role in dying rather than taking a quick and easy way out, which would have cheated his family and friends,” Lutgring said.They never could have shared stories, said thank you, goodbye, or any of those things which were really a summary of the man’s meaning of life, he added.Lutgring’s role is one of companionship. His work is a lot about communication.In the Navy at 17, he said he became the informal counselor for many people around him. He figures it happened because of a comfort level people had with him and his interest in them. From Indiana, he developed an interest in juvenile delinquent work while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The more he studied that, the less he liked “correcting people.”

He decided to become more of a generalist. He obtained a master’s degree in social work and shifted his focus toward psychotherapy. But he found people would try to have a problem “fixed” and move on.”People have all the skills they need to fix themselves,” he said. “We shouldn’t be there to fix them.”He’s more about being there for people, if they want that.People seem to be most vulnerable during the days preceding their or a family member’s death, Lutgring said. And, if they’re ready, that’s when they’re most appreciative of the companionship and positive attempts to talk about painful things.”Of all the things I’ve ever done in social work, hospice is the only one where patients and families are truly genuine,” he said. “All the noise around living changes and they deal more genuinely and compassionately at end of life.”Some families aren’t receptive to the idea of hospice and opt for more aggressive treatment options. Those people usually die in a hospital and miss out on that “last gift” of possible comfort at home that hospice can give, Lutgring said. He realizes it’s up to each patient and each family to decide. Assessing those needs and desires is another part of the job. He gives credit to the volunteers, nurses, bathing aids, chaplains and to hospice medical director Al Saliman for working as a team to provide the services.Trying to help people on the brink of death and their families or friends has helped Lutgring reflect on his own life and priorities.”I think hospice has helped me live my life more fully,” he said. “I feel like I’m living each day in the way that I choose, and should tragedy strike me I have no regrets.”



Contact Pete Fowler: 945-8515, ext. 16611pfowler@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO


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