Hospice Patient’s Poetry Reveals Joys and Struggles Near End of Life

Rosemary Burgo has written poetry since age 7, as a way to handle life’s difficulties. And in the months before her death at age 70, writing poetry helped the Mount Laurel woman craft the final chapter of her life, and her legacy to others coping with illness.

Since becoming terminally ill from heart and lung problems and entering Samaritan’s hospice program in February 2015, Rosemary has found new inspiration for her writings with the encouragement of her hospice chaplain. These interactions spawned an outpouring of recent works, including powerful poems and thoughtful meditations, that captured her insights and feelings about life, illness, and death.

As in childhood, writing still offered an emotional outlet, said the retired attorney and English professor. “And, more importantly,” added Samaritan Chaplain Anne Butts, “she got huge satisfaction from the thought that her words might help others even after her death.”

Rosemary believed “the greatest pain people suffer is the pain they must suffer alone.” She hoped that by sharing her poetry, others could find a way to express their experiences, too, without shame. “It would be nice to think that someone, a year from now or ten years from now, was helped by a word, a thought or a poem,” she stated. “That would be a legacy I would like to leave in the world.”

A piece she wrote in March 2015 begins:

You look at me and say how sad a young     
Life is being cut short
I look at me and how wonderful it is that 
I finished everything…

These words proved particularly prophetic, as Rosemary succumbed to her illness just days after completing final edits on her poetry collection – “Reflections Toward Eternity” – to be shared by Samaritan this month.

The poem goes on to explore the conflict between loved ones’ reactions versus her acceptance of her situation. It explains her view that she’s lived a full life, and that the quality of her days is more important than “just to be alive.”

Her desire to make the most of her remaining time also drove Rosemary’s decision to enroll in hospice – and why she chose Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice.

“I had them for my brother and my aunt,” said the articulate author, who also wrote three books. “Samaritan made their existence as comfortable as it could be. That’s what I wanted –  and that’s what I’m getting.”

Indeed, Samaritan has provided a range of supports to Rosemary in her home, including multiple visits each week from a staff nurse, social worker, home health aide, and chaplain. Plus, she’s received massage therapy to lessen back pain.

The amiable senior especially enjoys her time with Chaplain Anne Butts — which often includes discussions of her poetry. In fact, with Rosemary’s blessing, Anne has shared poems with other Samaritan patients, as a way to help them overcome their reluctance to discuss end-of-life issues. In keeping with Rosemary’s wishes, the chaplain will also offer in-service training for her social work and spiritual support counselors. Her goal is to make them aware of this resource and foster their use of it with patients and caregivers as appropriate.

Many pieces reflect the difficult emotions both patients and families can experience, from sadness to anger to regret. “The poems show people it’s OK to feel these things and to talk about them,” says Anne.

This excerpt offers a heartfelt example:

…I have loved you all
Sometimes not enough
Sometimes not well
But know you have been my gifts
Of laughter, of joy of deep friendship, of love…
And I hope that in some small way
My life has been a gift to you
I always intended it to be
Even though I sometimes
Faltered greatly and, for that, I am truly sorry.

Throughout her life, Rosemary has found comfort and healing through such self-expression. Even as a young child, writing eased the impact of harsh, callous parents.

“It’s a way for me to be true and honest, and to keep that little girl inside me alive.” She has also written poems to her close friends and relatives, as a way to communicate her love and appreciation for them.

“I love making people feel good about themselves,” says Rosemary. “I’ve wanted to do that since childhood — to give others what I hadn’t received. That’s when I got it back: when I wasn’t seeking it.”