Whenever I entered a patient’s home as a hospice chaplain, much seemed the same. The patient might be rich or poor, young or old, but they were invariably surrounded by the benchmarks of a life-threatening illness: hospital beds, oxygen tanks, commodes, medication bottles.
Still, with eyes and heart open, I knew everyone, and ever situation, was unique.
How can one patient, facing death, glow with kindness? How can another, also confronted by death, appear mired in bitterness? Of course, it’s like that with everyone, in all seasons and places. One child laughs, another child sulks. One employee bounces through the Monday morning office door, while the next slouches in with a grim, don’t-tread-on-me expression. Voices and fingerprints and more confirm that we are the lonely or lovely stars of our one-person road show.
And so, I sit beside a patient’s hospital bed.
I’ve read her medical chart and know she told her nurse yesterday that she “felt lousy.” And she’s expressed she doesn’t believe in God. Across from me is her caregiver, a life-long friend of the patient. Together, the caregiver and I try to discover if any words can be said or heard that will change “feeling lousy” into . . . well, while I optimistically wish for a transformation into “feeling loved,” I’d realistically take “feeling better.” Truthfully, I know I shouldn’t have any expectations, whether practical or overly optimistic. She is dying. I don’t know how she feels. But I also do know her friend loves her.
The caregiver shares good memories. I venture examples of positive moments, even of God’s possible presence, that the patient has revealed to me in the past.
After an awkward silence, the caregiver asks, “I hope you don’t feel like a burden?”
The patient’s response is blunt and quick. “I do. Yes, a burden.”
One honest puzzle piece of “feeling lousy” has now been expressed. Once, when I broke three bones in my left leg, I became dependent for months. I felt a burden to others. But her feeling is radically different. With my broken body, I knew I’d get better, eventually returning to mobility and health. Reminders of dying—her dying—were everywhere. And her “feeling lousy” because she’s a “burden” was merely one of multiple puzzle pieces creating a dread about each day. She’s a burden and wants to die. She’s dependent on others . . . so, why live?
I wish I could report, as the visit unfolded, with the caregiver’s compassion and my encouragement, that seeds of renewal emerged from the hard ground of “feeling lousy.” But I think she still felt she was a burden even as I headed for my next appointment.
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:2)
God, hopes, life and purpose . . . all seemed missing-in-action. Where are the answers? What could I have said to this patient? What could I have said to her caregiver?
First, and this is forever my struggle, I’ll try to tuck away my self-serving expectations and trust God’s way. Along my particular Christian path, I don’t believe Jesus called us to follow a certain religion, but instead invited us to risk honest, equal (and sometimes uncertain) relationships. Second—and this is essential for me as her chaplain—I will prioritize her and her needs.
Have I failed in my two-part efforts? Oh, too often . . .
But I told her she was a precious child of God. I will say that again and again because I believe she is. I will remind her that she isn’t, for anyone, a burden.
She. Is. Not.
Each time I left, I promised to visit again. Yes, I was paid to put her name on my schedule as part of a Medicare benefit, but (then and now) I’m a clever fellow and could’ve found excuses to avoid her. I promised to visit, and kept my promise, because that’s how momentary or lifetime relationships are formed.
The commitment to a relationship is how someone who feels they are a burden has a chance to know they are God’s here-and-now gift.
(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