WASILLA — Darlene “Dar” Miller’s death in a house fire last week staggered coworkers all too familiar with death, loss and grief.
Miller spent the last eight years as a nurse with Mat-Su Regional Homecare and Hospice, an organization that provides in-home care for terminally ill patients and support for their families.
Her peers are finding there’s no coping mechanism to ease the shock of such a sudden, traumatic loss.
“We’re experts in grief and the dying process, but it’s different when it’s one of your own,” said Barbara Mistler, the center’s director. “Who takes care of the caregivers?”
Firefighters found the 54-year-old Miller unconscious and badly burned, but still alive in her Wasilla home Jan. 5. Though a cause has yet to be established, the long-smoldering fire apparently started near a bed on the first floor, burning so hot it charred beams and melted pictures on the wall. Miller’s two dogs died next to her.
She was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for burn treatment, but she died the next day.
Miller shared the home with partner Michaele Hannam. She was not available for comment.
Mistler told staffers about Miller’s death the afternoon of Jan. 6. A mental health counselor conducted two debriefing sessions. The director tried to lighten workloads where she could, to give stunned employees a break.
“We deal with death every day. But when it’s somebody close, it’s like all these deaths… you tuck away a little of the hurt,” said Judy Hayes, a hospice nurse who considered Miller her mentor. “When it’s somebody you know, it all comes out. The emotions aren’t just for Dar. It’s a bigger hurt, a bigger loss.”
Miller’s desk at the center’s Bogard Road office remains as she left it: a tidy memorial with a picture of her dogs — spunky cattle dogs called heelers, one young, one old.
A common thread emerged about Miller’s personal side during a visit Monday to her office.
She was a rugged Canadian woman who wore mukluks and a leather coat in winter and had a thing for pickup trucks. She loved escaping to her Trapper Creek cabin with Hannam. She possessed a dry sense of humor, amazing penmanship and a propensity for goofy sayings like “God love a duck.”
She combined a knack for listening without judging and a total lack of phoniness, said Vicki Turtle, a home health aide and information technician with 23 years at Mat-Su home care and hospice.
Miller started out as a neo-natal nurse practitioner but wearied of watching babies die, coworkers said. Starting with the Mat-Su organization in 2001, Miller took on the role of mentor. She was one of four hospice nurses and worked as a case manager.
Turtle remembered hearing Miller telling new nurses, “We cannot resolve everybody’s problems. We’re here to make them comfortable and get them to the next place.”
Longtime home health aide Ahna Simonds leaned on Miller in tough situations — patients with problems that made dressing changes painful or clients as young as 10.
“Dealing with younger patients, it’s really hard to go into a home,” Simonds said. “You’ve got to be able to talk with somebody, or just cry together and be angry.”
Miller’s loss also sends ripples through the lives of an unknown number of patients and their families in homes and assisted-care facilities throughout the Mat-Su.
Last year, 120 hospice patients died. Miller knew them all, Hayes said, as well as those from years past.
One was Mary Hann, who died in October at the age of 84.
Miller was Hann’s primary hospice nurse over a remarkable two-year period; patients don’t qualify for hospice until they’re given less than six months to live, but Hann died slowly, a little at a time, as the arteries of her brain hardened, her daughter said.
Miller showed empathy and compassion even as Hann “pretended she could function better than she could,” said daughter Melinda Glass. Hannam, a hospice volunteer, would take Hann on trips to get books, get out of the house.
Glass was glad her mother died before she had to hear the news of Miller’s death, she said. “I would not have told her. It would have destroyed her.”
Miller had 12 patients when she died, said Hayes, the other hospice case manager at the office. She spent last week sharing the sad news over and over again, patient by patient.
Mistler said she plans to post a photo of Miller in the hospice room as a remembrance. Some employees are still so stricken by her death they can’t talk about it.
Some say she’d be telling them to buck up.
“I can just hear her,” Turtle said. ” ‘Don’t fuss over me. Have a party. Move on.’ ”
Anchorage Daily News