By Clay Evans
Nearly 10 years after his death, Bruce Fisher is still teaching us.
Through “Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends,” the book, the educational program and the nonprofit organization of the same name, Fisher’s work in helping people walk through and cope with divorce, the end of a relationship or loss of any kind continues to bring healing to thousands every year.
“The concept is to embrace the experience (of loss) rather than push it away and hope that time will heal the wounds,” says Will Limon, one of the original Fisher seminar facilitators, who was trained by Bruce Fisher in 1978.
Bruce is still teaching his wife, Nina Hart, 60. In fact, the experience of Bruce’s death from cancer on May 19, 1998, at home, with hospice care and no intervention except for pain medication, led Hart into hospice volunteer work. A year after her death, she was facilitating grief groups for HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties, and she’s still going strong.
“My hospice involvement over the years has taught me so much about how I want to live my life. People who are interested the end of life are so fortunate, because we are all going to have to do it one day,” Nina says.
And a decade later, Bruce is teaching me. When I approached Kim Mooney of HospiceCare about working with the family of a dying patient for an extended period and writing a story about their experience, she immediately thought of Nina and Bruce.
“At first I said, ‘No, absolutely not, I’m adamantly against it. Death is too personal and sacred an experience,'” Nina recalls. “It was Bruce who said, ‘I’m dying, and I am an educator, so yes.'”
So began the six weeks that Camera photographer Marty Caivano and I spent getting to know Bruce, Nina, their son Rob, then 14, and all the amazing, calming, knowledgeable people who work for the nation’s second-oldest hospice nonprofit. Marty and I dropped in on the family almost daily, it seems, sometimes even spending the night with Bruce as he moved toward the peaceful, natural death he wanted.
I remain especially moved by the time I spent with him at 3 a.m. on the last day of his life. Struggling with his breathing, and experiencing fear, Bruce took comfort from — and also was sometimes suspicious of — the caregiver in his room. His body, in its wisdom, had ceased to desire food, and he’d even begun to spit up the sips of water he took.
“I have tremendous respect for the body,” caregiver Clara Hendricks whispered to me over gentle strains of Beethoven. “Death is really a very ordinary thing. Our bodies know how to do this. It’s a built-in program that our heads don’t know how to do. Like when he’s gasping for air, or his breathing stops for a moment, it’s as if his body is trying to get used to the idea of not breathing anymore.”
But even in his restlessness, Bruce seemed to see things, to know things, that were anything but frightening.
“I’m feeling lighter now,” Bruce told his friend Michael Anfinson, who also was there in the hushed, shadowed room. “I’m feeling more free. I’m feeling less toxic.” He paused, and then: “I tell you, it gets more and more impressive, doesn’t it?”
Marty and I continued to follow the family after Bruce’s death, through his memorial service, and even into the next year. Both of us still know and love Nina.
“In the end, it was just one of the greatest joys in my life that we did the story,” Nina says. “I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”
Neither would I. I’d seen death with maximum medical intervention, and Bruce’s passing was far less anguished. It wasn’t always easy for him, but his hospice team kept him comfortable, and when the time came, he left his body in peace. He embraced his end, and a truly good death was his reward.
Ten years later, more doctors are talking to their patients about their end-of-life choices. They’re telling older patients the hard facts: We’ve been taught to demand procedures and interventions to prolong life, but such “aggressive” treatment can frankly be inhumane and instead prolong suffering.
“The culture has a built-in bias that everything that can be done will be done,” Dr. Tom Rosenthal, chief medical officer at U.C.L.A., told the New York Times in a May 5 story about the concept of “slow medicine.”
Instead, Rosenthal says, doctors should be talking frankly to patients from day one about potential costs of intervention and making choices to die well, rather than to “live” longer.
Bruce taught me all that by example.
Even the story and photos about his death continue to teach. I hear from readers, even today, who still remember Bruce’s journey.
So, a decade after his death, I want to say — again — thank you, Bruce. Thank you, Nina. Thank you, Rob. Thank you, hospice. Like Nina, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
If you go
If you go
What “Celebrating Dr. Bruce Fisher,” a tribute to his work and life, led by his widow, Nina Hart
When 1 p.m. Saturday
Where Radisson Conference Center, 1850 Industrial Circle, Longmont
Call 303-444-2094 or e-mail email@example.com