“What do you say when people ask how you can work in hospice?”
Near the end of a long Friday, and at the end of a tough week, a colleague posed that question.
That question. That question.
I won’t share the details of our conversation because—like everything in hospice—confidentiality is a priority. But I will tell you my co-worker had several demanding visits in a row with patients. Everyone with a job they enjoy has days like my colleague. But in hospice, the patients and clients you meet—the scared or angry person, the silent or talkative person, the openly sharing or mask-the-feelings person—are all dying. They will not get “better.” Their loved one, whether an infant or an octogenarian, won’t get better. And so you wonder if you truly helped them. You wonder if someone else might’ve said the “right” or “better” words. You refuse to use clichés or platitudes to bring comfort in a time of overwhelming crisis, but then it’s as if you have nothing to say. You walk into homes where a family’s world is falling apart and, before knocking on their door, you contemplate (for a selfish, exhausted moment) scurrying back to your car.
While I have answered the “how” question in many ways, two reasons are constants. One has to do with comparisons. The other is simpler.
By background, I’m an ordained Christian minister of—to quote the formal language—word, order, and sacrament. In overly simplistic terms, word means preaching. Order involves responsibility for the administration of a church, including (yikes) paperwork and personnel issues! Sacrament refers to the rituals of the faith, and most especially communion and baptism in my United Methodist tradition. There are other rituals, with some described in less formal language: like hatch, match, and dispatch or marry, bury, and baptize. Those are well-worn phrases, rooted in “insider” humor. I’ve spent quite a bit of my ministry with the “match” and “dispatch” (or “marry” and “bury”). Which is to say I’ve done hundreds of weddings and even more funerals.
If given the choice of participating in only one of those two rituals for the remainder of my career, I’d choose funerals. But . . . why?
Weddings worry about color schemes, brides and grooms grumble about who to invite, future mother-in-laws attempt rehearsal mutinies, flower girls wail as they wander the middle aisle, the groomsman have a hangover from the bachelor party, and the caterer’s food is too cold, too spicy, or runs out. And by the way, the DJ plays the music too loudly and the wedding cake mimics the Tower of Pisa. Weddings are filled with stress, huge price tags, and members of families who spend most of their life trying to avoid spending time with other members of the family.
Please, let me lead a funeral. Sure, we all complain about the costs of the American funeral. And families drink, argue, and equally hope the crazy aunt from Toledo or the nephew who sells drugs doesn’t appear at the wedding (or funeral) reception.
Comparisons are negative and unfair. But I have them!
My second reason is simple. People tend to be more honest in the time of death, in the “dispatch” and “bury” time. When a loved one is dying, we want them to be at peace. We don’t want them to suffer. What we say to them matters. How we listen is active and focused. When I help someone plan a funeral, they may not know exactly what they want, but they rarely worry about color schemes or seating arrangements.
We live in a culture that reveres strength: ah, the strong, silent type. We seek to control everything. We trust science, technology, and medicine will guarantee longer, healthier lives. But dying thwarts our best plans. The chaos of death shatters the illusion of control. Grief’s turmoil causes us to feel like we’re drowning. All modern advances seem futile in the face of the primal truth of mortality.
I believe I am at my best when I am vulnerable. When I am honest with myself and with you. When I don’t judge another, but listen. When I wait my turn to speak. These things are more likely to happen when death inevitably elbows its way into life. When, in hospice, I ask someone “how are you doing,” I wait for the answer. How many times in a day or week do we pass by someone and say a version of “how you doing,” but keep heading in the opposite direction?
My work in hospice encourages me to stand still. I tell the participants in the grief support groups I lead that I understand what they are feeling, and I don’t understand. I tell them many of their reactions are normal, but none of those reactions will ever feel normal. I tell them they share common ground, but that every person’s experience is unique.
I am not contradicting myself when saying these things.
Instead, I am acknowledging and inviting vulnerability.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by