“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—a weary chaplain who had been with a few “tough” patients—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 my co-worker did have several demanding visits in a row with patients and their families. Everyone with a job they enjoy has days like my colleague. But in hospice, the folks you meet—the scared or angry person, the silent or talkative person, the openly sharing or mask-the-feelings person—are all involved with dying. Friends or family members are now visiting or caregiving for a “patient.” Their loved one, whether an infant or an octogenarian, won’t get better.
How can my colleague not wonder if anything that was said truly helped the patient and family? How can you not question any words you shared? If you resist the clichés or platitudes that never bring comfort in a time of dying, then what words can be offered? You prepare to visit homes where a family’s world is falling apart and, before pressing the doorbell, you might contemplate (for a few selfish, exhausted seconds) scurrying back to the 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 a now retired ordained Christian minister of—according to 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. 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”). In other words, I’ve done hundreds of weddings and probably even more funerals.
If given the choice of participating in only one of those two rituals, I’d choose funerals. But why?
- Weddings worry about color schemes
- Brides and grooms grumble about who to invite
- Future mothers-in-law attempt rehearsal mutinies
- Flower girls wail as they wander the middle aisle
- The groomsman have a hangover from the bachelor party
- The caterer’s food is too cold, too spicy, or runs out
- The DJ plays the music too loudly
- The wedding cake mimics the Tower of Pisa
- And . . .
Weddings are filled with stress, huge price tags, and family members who spend most of their life trying to avoid spending time with other members of the family. Seating charts for the after-ceremony meal can become as complicated as a battle plan.
Please, let me help with a funeral. Sure, we all complain about the costs of the American funeral. And many families, regardless of the occasion, drink, argue, and equally hope the crazy aunt from down south or the snarky nephew who sells drugs won’t attend.
Comparisons are negative and unfair. But I have them!
My second reason is simple.
People tend to be more honest when confronting death, in the “dispatch” and “bury” time. If 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 helped someone plan a funeral, they may not know exactly what they want, but they rarely worried 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. I don’t judge another, but listen. 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 pause to give room for the answer. How many times in a day or week do we pass by someone and say a version of “how ya 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 that 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 remind them 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