Religion Can Help (Or Hinder)

"Empty Chair" by Anthony Ulinski

“Empty Chair” by Anthony Ulinski

She answered the phone.

Her sister had recently died. Soon, I was sharing what our hospice offered for the bereaved.

Like many hospices, we have grief counselors. It would be easy to schedule a one-on-one session . . . but she didn’t sound interested. I suggested our support groups.

“Maybe later on, I guess, but I’m not a groupy kind of person.”

An upcoming workshop on grief wasn’t appealing. And then, since this conversation occurred near the start of autumn, I mentioned several upcoming annual activities. One dealt with facing the holidays without a loved one. Another was an outdoor memorial service between Thanksgiving and Christmas, open to everyone in the community.

“Are those holiday events going to emphasize a particular faith?” she asked.

[Please see disclaimer . . . here.]

She emphasized . . . particular.

Compared to her reaction to counseling and groups, I sensed her interest in events that might help her face the first holidays without her beloved sister. Because of notes written in the hospice medical charts, I knew she had lived near the sister who died. Two sisters were in other parts of the state, but all were close, always in touch with each other. Like many modern families, the holidays bunched at year’s end included opportunities for family gatherings.

Starting at Halloween, aren’t all calendars stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with “special days?” Some holidays can feel like obligations, and others may be ignored, but most families have traditions that prompt anticipation. Those traditions, after a death, can be dreaded.

Because of the chart notes, and a comment this sister had made earlier, I knew what she was really asking when she mentioned “a particular faith.”

She, and her sisters, were Jewish.

In a holiday season that would—guaranteed—break her heart when she sat across a festive table that had an empty chair, would she attend one of the hospice events and be offended or confused by a focus on Christianity?

I reassured her that would not be the case.

(I understood her concern. According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, those following some flavor of Christianity represent 70% of the American population. The next highest category (with 23%) includes the agnostic or atheist or those marking “none” for religious affiliation. Other faiths—Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.—make up the remaining 6%. Even though claiming any faith is in decline in the 21st century, there’s no doubt that Christian beliefs predominate.)

I wished I’d used bolder language to make my case to her! And I also wished the hospice where I work was “perfect” and that all hospices everywhere never over-emphasized the dominant religion.

If the sister hadn’t been in the depths of grieving, and if I’d had the “perfect” time to share a little with her, this is what I might’ve said about hospice and religion.

symbolsHospice staffs recognize the time of dying, death, and grief impacts people at every level of their being. Humans are physical, emotional, and spiritual creatures. Our bodies can hurt. Our feelings can be wounded. Our faith can birth hope or bring anguish. Even those without belief in a “higher authority” probably appreciate the values of beauty, relationships, and compassion. As death comes, or as grief envelops us, our values may strengthen or wither, may be a benefit or a burden. If the most important person in your life has died, some may struggle mightily with seeing beauty anywhere, or will never again—so they think—love another because loss is too painful.

All religions can provide immense help during dying and grieving. Patients and caregivers are often grateful beyond words when members of their church, synagogue, temple or mosque surround them with support. Shared prayers are precious. Meals brought into the home are treasures. Sacred scripture is read and brings peaceful feelings. The promises of a heaven, of a “better place,” encourage hope in the unknown future. The Roman Catholic priest intoning the Sacrament of the Sick or the Native American blessing a home with burning sage offer rituals of comfort.

But death and grief are also times when anger at God flows like lava. Faith is shattered. Sacred texts sound hypocritical. The childhood lessons about a loving God and happy endings seem, well, childish. Futile. Hollow. What was meaningful has become worse than meaningless.

“Are those holiday events going to emphasize a particular faith?” she asked.

Truthfully? They might. When we are grieving, we are vulnerable, and it’s impossible to predict what uplifts or upsets us. In a hospice’s service, there will be words and images from various faith traditions. I hope they don’t offend those who avoid any faith tradition. They will try to include words that understand the people attending—the strangers alongside each other—may feel angry about God’s absence or in awe of God’s presence.

No hospice is perfect. Every hospice can improve how it serves the dying and the grieving. But, especially in the time of year when an empty chair at the holiday table can devastate loved ones (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), every effort will be made to respect the wide variety of needs.


(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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