Sophie and Frankie's last dance

Tuesday, July 28, 1998, Branford, Conn - Birth is a beautiful event. There is extreme pain, confusion, anxiety, usually shouting, sometimes panic and plenty of crying.

It's a good thing the rest of life is not so exciting.

The best part of birth is when an actual person comes out and says his first words, mostly incomprehensible, but most likely meaning, "hello!"

It will be a strange society indeed, if we never say hello, or worse, goodbye. Just hang up the phone when you've said all you need to, or walk out when a conversation wanes. We need to acknowledge the event of departure, either with "goodbye" or "see you later" or "have a nice day" or something.

When it is time for our last goodbye - our most important goodbye - we are rarely in the mood for such cordiality. We and those we love are caught in a maelstrom of denial, guilt, anxiety and confusion. Sophie Piergrossi is there right now, and thanks to a hospice, it will be a better day to say goodbye.

Sophie is in the care of the first organized hospice in the United States. Begun in 1974, the Connecticut Hospice has helped 30,000 patients and their families, and has influenced the nation and the world.

The goal of Hospice is to "add life to our days, not add days to our lives," says John Abbott, a Hospice senior advisor. They do this using palliative care, with medical doctors, registered nurses, social workers, artists, and 450 volunteers throughout Connecticut.

There comes a time when the band says "last dance" and if you ignore the call and stay in your seat, you will miss out. But if you get out there and dance like you never have and you hold your partner tightly and say goodnight, you will remember that time fondly.

With the help of hospices, people suffering from AIDS, cancer, Lou Gehrig's Disease and heart related illnesses, and their loved ones are having their last dance.

Though she can no longer speak, Sophie is saying goodbye in a manner blessed with dignity, free from pain and filled with memories. Frankie Piergrossi, her husband of twenty-nine years, is on the other end of this goodbye.

Frankie met Sophie when he was a thirty-three year old police officer investigating an accident, and she was with a group of friends at the scene. He asked the ladies for eye witness reports but came up empty. Over his patrol car radio came a report from the dispatcher; "One-oh-two" said the voice. Sophie asked the police man, "what's One-oh-two mean?" Frankie was confused. "Huh?" he said. "One-oh-two," what's that code mean?" she asked again.

Frankie chuckled. "That's the time," he said.

Officer Piergrossi went about his investigation, but he did not forget the inquisitive and beautiful lady. A few months went by and they met again - they were soon married.

Thirty-one years later, Frankie visits Sophie every day. He spends the twenty -minute drive from their home to her bedside in peace, because, with the help of hospice, he has accepted Sophie's fate. Hospice isn't so much a place you come to die, he has learned, as it is a place you come to live.

Hospice is about family and about the family's needs as well as the patient's, and it offers many important services to ease the pain of this event.

  • The hospice has a room where family and patients can relax, with a grand piano, books and a small chapel. Artworks and flowers are everywhere in naturally lit hallways and rooms.
  • Hospice nurses asked Frankie to bring in family albums, and he showed them the story of Frankie and Sophie and their beautiful life.
  • Frankie talks to families of other patients and meets in hospice support groups. Here he is with people like him, people having a last dance with their partners.
  • Sophie's friends and family visit her whenever they like. "If I can't sleep, I can come down here at three in the morning," says Frankie. "I could even pull down the bedrail and sleep with Sophie. That means a lot to me."
  • The hospice dietary staff makes sure Sophie's meals are appealing. For many patients, eating is a struggle and having food that looks and tastes good is invaluable.
  • The hospice art therapist asked Frankie to draw dementia - which Sophie suffers from - and he drew pages and pages of what he thought his wife was seeing. He drew what Sophie might be feeling, hoping and dreaming. He even wrote Sophie a letter. All this, he says has helped him say goodbye.
  • And if Frankie needs help or guidance during the next year or so, hospice volunteers, specializing in bereavement, will be there for him.
  • Hospice is even trying to help people for longer periods, as they have found that they can help people in the earlier stages of a terminal illness.
  • The "retreat" hidden in a far corner of the facility, is a small, private, sunlit chamber where a person can collect her or his thoughts.

"I'm scared... but I'm gonna be all right," says Frankie. "The people here told me "are you gonna forget everything she taught you all these years?... I feel so peaceful when I come here. I'm not sad or angry anymore, for she is in a good environment. This place here, takes all the horror out of it."

Some day very soon, the hospice staff will brush Sophie's hair, collect her few belongings and will wheel her up to the viewing room. They won't cover her with a sheet, but will pull her right through the hall and everyone may say goodbye. In the viewing room, Frankie will telephone people, make final arrangements and meet with friends and family.

But for now, it's their last dance, and if it was two minutes past one O'clock when Sophie met Frankie, it is about two minutes to the hour now, and he should know - and the people at the hospice are helping Frankie realize - that when the hand reaches twelve and this dance is ended, all is not over. It will continue around again and again.

Side Facts and Iota

  • For more information on hospice, visit
  • In 1982 Congress made hospice care a Medicare benefit. Facilities are certified by Medicare and are licensed by their state.
  • 80% of hospice care is in the patient's home or nursing facility
  • Many people visit hospice for "pain and symptom management" in the Palliative Care Program, and return to their homes.
  • The Connecticut Hospice has a pediatric program.
  • Hospice is a non-profit organization and patients are accepted "solely on the basis of need and not on the basis of their ability to pay," according to the organization's brochure.
  • There are over 3,000 hospice programs in the U.S., with thousands of trained volunteers, according to Althea Porcher, Manager of Communications for the Connecticut Hospice.
  • People from around the globe visit the Connecticut Hospice to learn how to set up their own hospice programs. Contact the The John D. Thompson Institute for Education, Training and Research. (203)481-6231 or 1-800-8-HOSPICE

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