Childish Hospice Lessons

In my Christian tradition, Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

You could find that passage in Mark 10:15. But this I also know: all religions have scriptures and traditions that affirm the importance of every single precious child.

And every single “child-like” adult.

I believe Jesus understood God’s realm in two different ways. The first was after death. Eternal life. But the second was equally important. It is the realm of the next moment and next relationship and next decision. The “realm of God” is where what is said or done can reveal how God longs for us to be in community, to be neighbors.

As a hospice chaplain, I witnessed both paths: the hope of life after death, the hope of life now.

Remember how you felt when hurt by the words or ways of another and they came to you, honestly seeking your forgiveness? I hope you have had those experiences. In that moment, as you gave forgiveness, you helped build or rebuild a “community” between you and another. Forgiving is a way for the selfish to become the selfless, the stranger to be greeted as friend, hate transformed by mercy, fists replaced by welcoming hands.

It is through the simplest (though often most demanding) actions of love, as the one giving or receiving forgiveness, that we are most child-like.

I recall one of my first visits with one of my first hospice patients. Though her body was under assault from a failing heart and cancer, she happily shared her personal history and hoped-for future activities. She was also realistic . . . some of the future plans might not happen. But all of them involved her kids and grandkids. Her bucket list was modest and magnificent, overflowing with upcoming birthday parties, high school graduations, and family reunions. Each celebration on her calendar was a stepping stone to the next. She knew there would be a “last” step, but she tried to only focus on the joy of here and now.

While the patient and I chatted, her five-year old great-grandchild dashed from one room to another. Suddenly, with a blue, irregularly shaped object clutched in her hand, the child plopped at my feet and announced she must give me money.

Well!

As our adult-talk continued, I noticed the great-grandchild was carefully prying off the bottom of the blue possession. Now I saw what it was. After a few moments, money from her piggy bank tumbled out. She selected a few pennies and handed them to me.

I thanked her and told her it would be better if she kept them.

Solemnly agreeing, she took them back. But then she whispered, “How ’bout some quarters?”

Ah, she was upping the stakes!

With the selected coins cradled in her palm, she lifted them toward me.

I also took those, again thanked her, and then returned them.

I knew her tricks. Hey, I’ve used ‘em myself! This pint-sized person wanted my attention. But wasn’t there more? I suspect she knew money was valuable and I seemed like an okay guy and why not give me something worthwhile? She was young enough to comprehend money had value, but not so old as to hoard or flaunt it. If it’s good and special, then why not give it away!

Unless you become as children.

When we are around others, what else is there but to give ourselves away? To share our best gifts . . . not money as such, but the currency of the realm of God’s love. Of the forgiveness I mentioned as an earlier example, but also (especially when a loved one is dying or grieving) comfort, understanding, assistance . . .

Are those easy to share? Not always.

But too many of us act like fearful adults.

We hoard. We withdraw. We evaluate. We compare. We barter. We blame.

Then or now, I wasn’t naïve. The next visit to another patient could be in a house roiling with anger or accusations. Hospice never guarantees mistake-free caregiving, or that dysfunctional families will miraculously begin communicating, or that a loved one will have a peaceful death.

However, in that home and at that moment, the great-grandchild scampered away, perhaps to give coins to another in the house. The patient said, as I prepared to leave, that she was so thankful for hospice, for all the people helping her. I held her hand, and we prayed, and I knew the currency of God’s love had been shared.

Child-like, we knew what was valuable.

Once strangers, we were neighbors.

Will death come? Of course. But now, here, life.

(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.)

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