Archive for Visiting the Dying

Before I Knew Her Name, I Knew She Was Dying

This* happened years ago . . .

Before I knew her name, I called her the Tattoo Lady. And also, before knowing her name, I knew she was dying.

I will protect her identity, and since no longer thinking of her as the Tattoo Lady, let me give her an imagined name: Mary. Mary is good enough. It reminds me of why I met her, why I sat beside her bed, and talked about life and death and life.

For Christians, the name Mary likely recalls two different women in the Bible. The obvious first was Jesus’ mother. The obvious second was Mary Magdalene, a woman whose life changed, and kept changing, because of her relationship with Jesus. (According to Luke 8:1-3 she once had seven “demons.”)

So, for the Tattoo Lady, Mary represented a good pseudonym for a mother’s name. After all, the first time I heard about Mary was through her daughter. Maybe desperate and certainly determined, Mary’s daughter called to interview me. She claimed to be searching for, “A liberal pastor that won’t be bothered by my mother’s tattoos.”

Tattoos. Okay.

“And,” the daughter continued, “I am a lesbian and not a Christian.” But her mother was Christian, even though she hadn’t darkened the door of any church for years.

“Mom doesn’t need someone telling her that she is, or I am, headed for hell. You won’t say that, will you? She’s dying from cancer and doesn’t need fire and brimstone crap from anybody. But she’d like to see a pastor and I promised that I’d find one. So, are you liberal?”

Am I? Read More →

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As a Hospice Volunteer, I Did Nothing

I did nothing.

Well, that’s not correct since I finished several chapters in the book I was reading.

I did nothing.

That’s not correct either, since I quietly eased down the hallway on several occasions to listen to the patient’s breathing. I was cautioned that he had a soft voice and would always say he was fine or didn’t need anything, even if he wasn’t fine and had needs. Best to listen carefully!

I did nothing . . . unless being ready to answer the door before a visitor pressed the doorbell or prepared to answer the phone before it rang for too long count as something.

As a hospice volunteer on one of my first assignments, I mostly did that “nothing.” After my training (I’ll mention more about that in a bit), I was ready to help! The Volunteer Coordinator had called, asked if I could go over to a family and patient’s home for an hour or two later in the week. I said sure. My task? Make sure the patient wasn’t alone. While I sat in the living room, present and available if “anything” happened, the patient’s weary wife did her grocery shopping.

I read a book. I stood in the hallway and listened. And then I welcomed a patient’s wife home, helped bring the groceries in, and was gone. Before leaving, the wife profusely thanked me . . . for nothing.

The patient died a few weeks later. It was my only visit.

Maybe a month later, I received a request from the hospice’s Volunteer Coordinator: one of the other volunteers couldn’t do their regular weekly visit with a patient. This fella was by himself for a predictable time during the week and everyone—the family and hospice medical staff—didn’t want him to be alone. Get a volunteer!

I filled in. Read More →

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5 Questions to Ask a Hospice Patient

On conversations that matter . . .

What can I say?

With some hospice patients, even when they are friends or family members, we’re unsure of how to keep a conversation going. It may be easy to begin a chat about today’s weather or yesterday’s news, but what about having a conversation that matters?

And for other hospice patients, maybe when we’re first-time visitors from their faith community or a new volunteer from hospice, we can also have doubts about what to say after the introductions and mentioning that it’s hot (or breezy, humid, snowy) outside.

Here are a handful of suggestions for deepening a conversation with someone in hospice care.

(And below the suggestions, if you want to skip my optimistic examples, I reflect about a recent “failed” visit with an acquaintance nearing death.)

5 things to say to someone you know and love . . . Read More →

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