Thanks to the Opening Minds through Art (OMA) program at Miami University, I believe that it's not only possible to become that important to someone in a short time, but it's probable--if you truly care for them, rather than simply meeting a "standard of care." OMA allows college students to work with dementia and/or Alzheimer's patients, to help them express themselves through art, even after they've lost the ability to express themselves verbally.
For an hour a week, I was partnered with Buster, an older gentleman who, to my mind, appeared very healthy. Unlike other elders at the nursing home, Buster wasn't confined to a wheelchair or a walker, though he was nonverbal. We did art occasionally, but usually we'd just walk around, and he'd listen to me talk.
One morning, Buster wasn't out walking per usual. I asked a nurse if he was off to a slow start. I learned that his family had come and that Buster had entered hospice care. I went in, introduced myself, and paid my respects. I was shaken up by this change, but my life went on.
I went back the next week and found the same nurse waiting for me. She told me that Buster had held on in hospice for three days, but that only a few hours after my visit, he'd passed away. She told me that the staff believed he'd been waiting for me to say goodbye.
I was shocked. This was a man that I'd only spent 10 hours with, yet because I'd truly cared during that time, I had become important to him. I realized that although society might consider Buster a stranger to me, based on how little time we spent together, I'd truly invested myself in him and had gained a friend.
So I still feel awkward mourning strangers, that's true. But OMA taught me that you can build a friendship faster than you think, something I intend to do with patients. Buster was my friend. So I cried.