my mother, Marj, receives a call from the nursing home where my
grandmother resides. My grandmother, named Gladys, nicknamed Gam, is
ninety two years old. The nurse tells my mother that Gam's pulse and
blood pressure have dropped, becoming too weak to measure. Gam also
has a 103 degree temperature and is non-responsive. The nurse suggests
this as the time to say final goodbyes.
During the phone call my mother repeats the family's standing orders
for comfort measures only, no hospitalization, no extraordinary or
heroic measures. The doctor has prescribed Tylenol suppositories for
the fever. Gam is also on oxygen.
My mother calls her sister and they hurry to the nursing home. As the
day progresses all of Gam's friends including staff and residents stop
by to look in on her. By ,
no change, the daughters feel resigned and despondent.A death vigil is in progress.
My mother calls and informs me of the situation. She knows I have been
studying Process Work and hopes it can help Gam. I am petrified! I am
a layperson being called into an institutional setting to do
unconventional work with my own family members, all of whom are in
altered states, either from physical causes or emotional reactions to
Gam’s condition. Gam's coma is now a family matter.
I arrive at
and join my mother and aunt at Gam's bedside. I announce my presence
to my grandmother and ask permission to visit. I assume she may be
very sensitive and don't want to startle her or scare her away. I tell
her I am going to hold her left hand. As I begin to touch her hand I
tell her what I am doing, and I confirm that I am touching her after I
do it. I tell her where her daughters are also touching her. She gives
no initial response.
I proceed giving feedback as I am working. I report out loud what she
does. People don't have much awareness of themselves in coma and
remote states, so outside feedback can be very useful:
Gam, you are taking shallow
breaths . . . I am going to breathe with you. This helps me focus
my attention and empathize with her. I also speak on her out breath,
another way of interacting at her pace.
You are doing great . . . Go
ahead with what you are doing. This "cheerleading" stage lasts
about fifteen minutes.
Your breathing just changed . . . Now you are taking deeper breaths .
. . a small sound in your throat . . . sounds great . . .
I try to imitate it. I 'gargle', she gargles much the same as before.
I try this several times repeating her sounds making them slightly
louder and longer. This gives her feedback and may help her go farther
with her vocalizations. Despite the strength of this signal there is
no change anywhere in her body, indicating negative feedback. But then
after a few minutes she moves.
Your left foot just moved . . . Ahhh, you just moved your left leg.
That's great! . . . You just took a really deep breath, feels good . .
. Your eyes are open . . . Yes, they've got a tube stuck up your nose.
That's for oxygen . . . You just swallowed.
Gam drinks a cup of water and asks for another. She speaks in mumbles
but gets the words out. As the three of us prepare to leave, she
exclaims, take me with you! At
the nurse reports by phone to my mother that Gam has eaten some ice
cream. Gam loves ice cream. My mother rests easy knowing that "ice
cream" means the crisis has passed.
Before leaving Gam, I had set the stage for continuing work by telling
her an important message. Shortly after Gam entered the nursing home
nine months earlier I paid her a visit. During that visit a fellow
nursing home resident began talking "gibberish" to us. After the
resident had gone, Gam remarked to me,
That guy is off in the
boondocks and that is where I will be soon. I say to her after the
coma work session, Gam, I'll be
back tomorrow morning at .
If you want to go to the boondocks it's okay. Do you remember the
She nods yes.
Okay, but I want you to know that I'll be back tomorrow
so if you want to visit we can do that too. Okay!?!
She nods yes again.
Upon returning home, my wife who is a nurse, asks me medical questions
for which I have no answers. “Has the doctor actually seen her? What
is causing her fever? Does she have an infection? Are her lungs clear?
Are they going to do a blood test?” I feel negligent having neglected
the obvious medical diagnostic approach to her condition. I spend the
night wrestling with the question whether the order "comfort measures
only" means the absence of normal care such as locating and treating a
common infection with antibiotics.
on Monday I return to the scene armed with these medical questions. I
check in at the nurses' station for a report. The nurse reports that
Gam is weak but responding. Her fever is gone and her lungs are clear.
No medications are necessary. She is still on oxygen. However, upon
entering the room, the nurse and I discover that Gam has removed the
oxygen tube herself.
I get back to work with Gam and this second session tells an important
tale in the dialog.
Tom: Gam, there is water in
your eyes. I used "water" because I want to give her the chance to
tell me her connections rather than make interpretations like "tears
Gam: If they are tears, they
are good ones. I could have asked more about the "good ones."
Instead I followed with a spontaneous remark.
Tom: Your daughters learned a
lot from you yesterday.
Gam: I hope they did!
Tom: You have a lot of work to
do . . . a lot of family history to teach . . . a lot of stories to
Gam: Cute little ones . . .
darlings . . . we've always had a lot of darlings . . . a lot there .
. . a lot of love has come a long way . . . a lot of good looking boys
. . . a lot of pretty mommies . . . a lot of pretty huggin' . . . and
handsome daddies, can't leave them out . . . I can't believe it . . .
part of it all . . . what a wonderful thing . . . to think of family
and grow like that! I never thought of telling stories . . . I'll get
my mind busy . . . there must be a lot of stories . . . they are
important! On the word "important" she squeezes my hand.
I depart at .
my mother and the doctor pay a visit. Gam is responding well. Doctor's
diagnosis is fever induced by a stroke in the brain evidenced by
speech impairment. Doctor and staff express surprise at her recovery.
Gam instructs my mother to write out the family tree. She wants to
review everybody! At
on Tuesday Gam wakes up hungry and wants to go to the dining room for
breakfast. So, off she goes three days later, stroke, recovery,
breakfast at age ninety-two. The staff reaction is best summed up by
the experienced orderly who works on Gam's wing. He says to my mother,
Why even when I worked in
few people in her shape ever came out of it!
Gam says to my mother, I love
The rest of the week I stay away. I feel elated but embarrassed, like
the rookie who hits a home run in front of his hometown crowd first
time up at bat. My mother reports to me that all is well.
Saturday, October 26, 1991,
six days after her stroke, I pay a visit.
Tom: Hi Gam!
Gam: Oh, hello dear . . . I
didn't know you were here . . . my voice is croaky.
Tom: Do you want to croak?
My remark had been reflex feedback of the word "croak." Only later
upon reviewing my notes did its intuitive significance hit me. Gam had
made a life and death decision. Having been given support to stay or
go off in the boondocks, she had decided to stick around for
Tom: Gam, you have been sick.
Gam: I have? . . . They didn't
tell me . . . That gives me something to think about.
I wish to reiterate that she did not feel sick. She lived through an
intense inner experience. It was not useful for her to talk about her
"sickness." It might have been useful to encourage her to share as
much of her experience as she wants to. I wish I could have tried
helping her think about it more.
Gam: My voice is back now.
Tom: It comes back when you
need it. She smiles. She hears traffic out in the hall.
Tom: Your hearing is good too.
I think you hear what you want to hear.
Gam: Yeah, I do.
Tom: You can be anything you
want to be for Halloween. What do you want to be?
Gam: I want to be right here.
She points to her chest. I interpreted this as the word "me." Looking
back, I wonder if she meant anything further by pointing to her chest.
Was there some physical or emotional process occurring in her chest?
Was a "Halloween party" already occurring in the moment? Was this
signal an opening to a possible mystery?
Tom: I'll save you some pizza
from the party. She indicates how much with her thumb and
Monday, October 28, 1991
Gam: I hope it will go good
tomorrow! I'm having you play.
Gam: Anything and everything .
. . it was going real good . . . boop, boop, boop. . . players . . . music . . . bringing the house down . . .
you and me . . . ask the boys, they were really doing just
Tom: Are you singing?
Gam: Oh yes! I go bing, bing,
bing and I'm fine!
Tom: Last night Paul, my
seven year old son, and Gam's great grandson,
said to me, "Dad, did you know
that Grandma is my favorite old lady geezer?" Referring to Gam's
daughter, my mother Marj.
Gam: Cute. . . the
primary geezer is
all right. We'll keep her going.
Tom: Am I talking to the
She smiles and nods. Then she thoughtfully offers me this counsel.
Gam: The boys . . . you got to
get them over the hump . . . you go eat. I'll take a nap.
A couple weeks later
My mother asks for a copy of Coma Work and Palliative Care
(Tomandl). She reads it before her youngest sister arrives from
to visit Gam. They see Gam and use the Process Work techniques
presented in the manual. After their visit my mother enthusiastically
reports, We followed Gam's
process and had a wonderful time!
November 8, 1991
Gam's speech has
now totally returned to normal. During our visit she delivers an
important message for her children.
Gam: I don't know what comes
next for us, but the kids are going to have to hunker down and find
their own nook. She reaches out with a grasping motion that turns
into a tight fisted grip as if holding on to something.
November 23, 1991,
Thanksgiving weekend, both my brother Dick and friend Stan are in town
for the holidays. Dick wants to visit with Gam, who he hasn't seen in
the last five years, and share the news of his recent marriage. I am
aware that Stan and I could help facilitate Gam's communication with
Dick, but I have lost sight of the possibility that Dick might share
my former fear of nursing homes. Stan and I volunteer to accompany
Dick to visit Gam in the nursing home. Our presence turns out to be
Tom: Hi Gam!
Gam: Oh hello dear . . . It's
cold in here. Gam is in bed in a two bed room. Her roommate Evelyn
is present. Dick, Stan, Gam, and Evelyn exchange greetings. Dick acts
awkward and shy under the circumstances.
Gam (To Dick): Oh how
wonderful! . . . It's chilly in here! . . . Dear, would you light a
fire . . . get some matches . . . go down and light a fire . . .
Evelyn: Don't give her any
At this point Stan has observed Gam's cycling. Gam has repeated
herself several times about "cold, chilly, fire, etc." The temperature
of the room, of course, in this modern facility is climate controlled
and actually warm for us visitors. Stan choreographs an intervention.
He walks around to the right side of Gam's bed, lowers the guard rail
and suggests to Dick that he sit on the side of the bed and hold Gam's
right hand. He does the same for me on the left side. Gam stops
repeating herself; the subject of the "chilly" room has been settled.
The message contained in the communication has been received. It is
now "warm" in the room for her too. This indicates that Gam was
speaking symbolically when she used the word "cold." It also makes
sense culturally that her communication would be indirect. After all
it is improper for a lady of Gam's generation to directly ask a
gentlemen to hold her hand, or come closer, or sit on her bed, even if
it is her adult grandson.
Despite my presence sitting on her bed and holding her left hand and
despite our long established familiarity and pattern of communication,
Gam doesn't glance at me the rest of the visit. She keeps her eyes on
Dick. This is his visit, his time with her. She asks him questions
about his life. Dick answers.
Dick: I got married and I'm
Gam: That's wonderful dear!
. . . so far . . . so far . . .Dick tells her much more but Gam keeps repeating "so, far."
Stan observes this and whispers a suggestion to Dick.
Stan: Tell her you wish you
were closer. Dick does so and Gam moves on to other topics.
Gam and Dick appear "closer." She relaxes and lets go of our hands. We
finally completed the communication.
Gam: I don't know where I lost
my voice. My lips are dry.
From a prior visit, I recognize Gam's symbolic language and decode the
phrase "My lips are dry."
Tom: Maybe you need a kiss.
Dick gives her a kiss. This may also relate back to her request for a
"fire" as in more "passionate" exchange. She appears content. Her face
Gam: Married! . . . That's
wonderful dear! . . . Are you getting wired down? She moves her
hands in a downward spiral.
We'll have a hoedown! . . . I'll light a candle for you and Marlene!
With that very heartfelt and lucid blessing, Dick is deeply touched.
This visit has transformed into a sacred ceremony blessing his
When I entered Gam's room, I was feeling awkward and emotionally aloof
with the attitude, "I'm tough; I'm made of stone; I’ll get this over
with quick." I thought Gam picked up on that. I felt she repeated
herself because she was always the perfect hostess and was not about
to let the visit continue until I felt warm and welcome.
When I came to visit Gam I thought I was coming to see a dying person.
What I discovered was that she was closer to life than I was. She was
the living person and while I held her hand, she gave me life. She
blessed me and gave me a longer life. I didn't want to leave. I wanted
Old, not sick
Because my grandmother is very old some may tend to mistake her life
and her communication methods as illness. My grandmother is not sick;
she is old. She has a long life behind her and a deadline ahead of
her. Her communications do not always conform to our expectations.
That is our problem. She speaks with her heart; she is harvesting her
life. She is beautiful. Despite her bed ridden outward appearance, I
believe Gam has a rich inner life and a great deal of wisdom to
contribute as one of our family elders.
Copyright 1991 by Tom Richards
Used with permission
We are available as keynote speakers, workshop facilitators, and
for private training sessions. For more information contact:
Stan Tomandl, MA, PWD & Ann Jacob, BA Ed
COMA COMMUNICATION THERAPY ~ PROCESS ORIENTED FACILITATION
#502--620 View Street, Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 1J6 Phone+1.250.383.5677 Emailfirstname.lastname@example.org* URL*www.comacommunication.com*