I won’t reveal details, but when I called a woman grieving her husband’s death, we talked about several things. Some were trivial. Some involved how her adult children were doing. Some concerned upcoming decisions that she faced.
Then I asked her a question.
And that pause came.
One of my responsibilities at the hospice where I work is to phone grievers after a loved one’s death. Many don’t want to talk for long, though they seem to appreciate the contact. Occasionally, the ones I call drive me batty! They answer and immediately say they can’t talk. Why? They’re at work or shopping or there’s a thousand good reasons . . . so why’d they even answer!?
Could it be they simply (and understandably) don’t want to talk to the guy from hospice? They don’t want more tears falling or throat constricting. They’d rather avoid the memories that might rush in, unbidden and with the force of a typhoon.
With her, there was that pause before her next words.
In those still, silent seconds, it was almost as if I could hear the increased thrum of her heart and sense the expanding and contracting of her lungs. Or her soul. Or both. Her pause was a prelude to speaking of tender moments with her now deceased spouse, and with the hospice nurses and social workers and chaplains and home health aides that had supported her husband. How she had loved her husband! How she had come to love the hospice “team!”
No hospice is perfect. All hospice staff make mistakes. We bumble and mumble and stumble. Hospice care is a scary step because every conversation, even the ones never spoken aloud, involve dying and death. We are professionals in a job that can never avoid disappointments and second-guessing trying to help those with even more disappointments and second-guessing.
There are sacred moments. Hospice care unfolds—with family members, with the hospice staff, with long-time lovers married for many decades or with grandkids and grandparents preparing for a last goodbye—in the most precious of moments. You can’t plan them, but they happen. There will be a pause, and then—maybe, possibly, hopefully—some truthful words are shared and you can literally hear the love transforming another’s voice. The sacred moments come with silence. With holding hands. With saying it’s time to say goodbye to the hospice nurse or volunteer and then lingering for another hour and talking about things that really matter.
When my mother was dying, her beautiful body wrecked by cancer and two futile surgeries, my sisters and I tried to be with her every possible moment. Since I’m the early riser in the family, I would head to the hospital in the morning dark. In a time when even a hectic hospital seemed to finally rest, I’d enter her room in that pre-dawn world. Sitting beside the bed, I’d wait for Mom to wake. Every morning could be the last morning.
Sacred times. Blessed moments.
I had lunch a few weeks ago with Nancy Hinds, the founder of our hospice. She’s retired now, but in the late 1970s and early 80s she had a wild idea: caring for the dying in her home. She was one of the earliest advocates for hospice in the United States. She is, to be pop culture about it, a rock star in the world of hospice. And yet she is not! She is quiet, serene, and has a perpetual twinkle in her eye. As we ate, she spoke words I’ve heard from her before. Each time they’re expressed with conviction and passion:
We do sacred work.
I chaplain once told me about sitting with a Hmong-American family after the death. Some in the family spoke English; some did not. For a long time, the elderly spouse of the patient who’d just died leaned against my colleague. Just leaned—for long, long moments. The Hmong wife (and now widow), born in a land thousands of miles away, forced to flee her home, could never communicate with her husband’s English-speaking chaplain. But she leaned into the chaplain, seeking and finding support. Sacred, wordless silence
I watched a nurse tend to the worst of a patient’s wounds. The cancer had been cruel and ruthless. Dying can come with pain and hurt and far too often with every inch of flesh and bone breaking down. But how tender the nurse was. How calm the patient became with the simple touch of a caring, kind nurse. Sacred touch.
I recall Mom telling me, when my father was in hospice care, that after each visit from his hospice volunteer, the volunteer phoned Mom to tell her how things went with Dad. My father, in his nineties, with horrific dementia, may have hardly known the volunteer was there. But he visited, read scripture to Dad, and tried to chat about this or that. And then, later, this “stranger” contacted Mom. He let her know that it was good to be with her husband. Sacred visits.
A patient once told me about his home health aide. He didn’t want her to see his body. He was ashamed of how he now looked. He was frightened by another person finding him so vulnerable. But then he allowed her to give him a sponge bath. She gently washed him. He said she talked to him, all the while making sure that he was “squeaky clean.” He smiled in the memory of her sweet care. When, as his chaplain, I asked if he wanted a prayer, he made sure we included the name of the home health aide. Sacred bathing.
We are all dying. We are all grieving. We are all strangers. We are all frightened.
No hospice is perfect. The hospice staff will make mistakes. All hospice care is done in the worst of times, on the threshold of a family’s greatest anguish. Still we try. Still, we enter homes and lives and try to offer the gift of our lives, care, and compassion.
As someone who has spent grand times tramping in the mountains of California, one of my heroes is John Muir. A 19th century Scottish immigrant, Muir eventually helped birth of America’s greatest ideas: the national park system. Late in his life, Muir was asked about hiking . . .
“I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
Dying is a journey. Grieving is a journey. I believe, as I work in hospice, as I support my co-workers, and as I try to support grieving, loving, broken, tender-hearted, wounded families, that we are on a shared journey. We are sauntering together. We are creating a kind of Holy Land, in the place where dying will happen, and grief will come, but life and love are the truest parts of our experiences together.
Nancy Hinds was right.
Sauntering together, we do sacred work.
(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.)