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Hospice Photography – Preserving Moments of Love Forever
By: Mary Landberg, RN, MPH, CHPN
It is my honor and privilege to be a hospice nurse and photographer. Over three hundred and fifty hospice families have given me permission to bring my camera into a most sacred and vulnerable time in their lives. I offer free portraiture to the dying and their loved ones, and personally gift families with matted prints and images on CD. My mission is to capture that unwavering expression of love and connection that endures between people living with terminal illness. I don’t usually photograph faces. I simply photograph hands holding each other in tender embrace. Remarkably, no two hand portraits are exactly alike.
(example of one of Mary’s hand portraits)
The hand portrait journey started about four years ago when I was silently holding hands with Franklin, a ninety-four year old WWII veteran dying peacefully from Alzheimer’s disease. He was quietly finishing up the last hour of his life in his barren little room at a nursing home. The old-fashioned rotary phone at his bedside rang. I took one of my hands from Franklin’s and quietly said hello into the receiver. It was his beloved grandson John. When I told John I thought his grandfather would most likely die within the hour, he sobbed, “Oh how I wish I could hold his hand just one more time, I miss him so much.” I shared with John that I was holding his grandfather’s hand so I offered the idea of snapping a photo of our hands with my phone and texting it to him. He eagerly agreed. Within seconds, the photo of our hands arrived on John’s phone, two thousand miles away. I heard John burst into joyous tears, “He looks so peaceful and he isn’t alone. That is all I could wish for.” He said, “You’ve captured his true essence, he was strong and kind.”
The Birth of Hospice Portraits
From that day forward, I started carrying a camera in my hospice bag along with my stethoscope. I became profoundly aware of the great similarity in the dying process regardless of economic status, age, cause or place of death. The loving way people touch each other is universal.
If the moment feels appropriate during a nursing visit, I gently offer the idea of a hand portrait. Nearly 100% of families say yes without hesitation. Most portraits are spontaneous and commonly taken in the last days of life. All family members give written consent. I also gladly accept portrait requests from the ICU and NICU at our local hospital and from the other three hospices in my community.
A Simple Gesture with Lifelong Impact
During the three minute process of taking a few photographs, I am consistently humbled to witness, and can actually feel in my heart, the true essence of loving connection between people as they sweetly adore their dying beloveds for the portrait. Families sink into the purity of their love for each other for my camera to capture.
Many people tell me their photographs are their most cherished objects and the images enable their love for each other to live beyond the last breath. Taking the portraits frequently moves me to tears and has motivated me to live and love deeper.
Processing, printing and packaging the photographs for mailing takes less than an hour of my time and costs me under $10. The response to the hand portraits has been absolutely priceless. In giving this gift, I receive tremendous joy and satisfaction that I am able to capture a moment of genuine love and preserve it forever. It feels like a superpower! It is my hope that other hospice workers across the country follow suit.
Hospice Nursing Heals the Hospice Nurse
I am so glad I switched carriers in my early forties. After working many productive years as an educator for cardiovascular disease prevention and control, I was called to go back to school and earn a degree in nursing. I wanted to be a cardiac nurse, but my big plans immediately changed in my senior year of nursing school when I opted for a one day ride-along with a hospice nurse.
Hospice nursing helps me be more of the person I want to be. I am a better person for spending time with the dying. I am gifted with endless reminders of the value of selflessness and unconditional love. I have learned how to be more present and live and love more fully. I have learned, by coaching others, to unconditionally give and receive love and forgiveness.
Mary with a patient, click image for more
Helping people have as much control as possible at the end of life helps me appreciate how many choices I have in my life. My experiences in hospice have helped me cope with difficult times in my life and have taught me to cherish precious time spent with my loved ones, and my limited time here on earth. My daughters are witnessing my evolution and I see them offering compassionate presence to their communities.
I am constantly amazed by what physical and emotional tragedies people endure. Their experiences humble me. I see all too often that people simply want to be loved, but not everyone is. I can easily bring love and compassion into the lives of these people who need it most.
Enduring Love – Inspiring Stories of Love and Wisdom at the End of Life
Enduring Love - Inspiring Stories of Love and Wisdom at the End of Life
I am now embarking on my next decade of hospice nursing as a national end of life educator. I have recently published a book of over one hundred hospice portraits: Enduring Love - Inspiring Stories of Love and Wisdom at the End of Life. Each portrait is accompanied by conversations with the dying, their advice for living, and the wisdom their illnesses have gifted them. Also included are grand love stories, glimpses into hospice care, and the truth of what death and dying looks like. I’m touring the country with the messages in Enduring Love and speaking to as many people as possible to help ease the fear of death, encourage conversation for best end of life planning, and to inspire people to live fully while they are alive. I would be delighted to come to your community and share the wisdom I have gathered.
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