On Faith: Blessing, Burden, or Both?

faith traditions

The younger one answered the phone.

Her older sister had recently died. Soon, I was sharing what our hospice offered for the grieving. Part of my job responsibilities include “cold calling” family members in the fragmented, blurry days after a loved one’s death.

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, but I’m really not a groupy kind of person.”

A grief workshop on next month’s calendar also wasn’t appealing. And then, since this conversation occurred when summer was fading into 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 focus on a particular faith?” she asked.

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 [Disclaimer!], I knew she had lived near the sister who died. Her two other sisters were in other states, but all were close, always in touch with each other. Like many modern families, the holidays bunched at year’s end included opportunities for far flung families to gather.

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 by the living.

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 at a festive table that would now have a literal (or symbolic) empty chair, would she attend one of the hospice events and be offended by a focus on Christianity?

I reassured her that would not be the case. Even more, I understood her concern. According to Pew Research polling, those following some flavor of Christianity represent just over 70% of the American population. The next highest category (with 22.8%) includes the agnostic, atheist, and those marking “none” for religious affiliation. Other faiths—Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, etc.—make up the remaining, and much smaller, percentages. 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 overly highlighted any dominant religion.

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

Hospice 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. A personal faith can birth hope for some. That same faith may bring anguish for a different believer. 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 rightly struggle 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,” bring encouragement for the unknown future. Whether it’s a Roman Catholic priest intoning the Sacrament of the Sick or a Native American healer blessing a home with burning sage, rituals represent pathways of comfort and support.

However . . .

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

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

Truthfully? They might.

When 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 and all faith traditions. The hospice’s staff 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 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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  1. Thank you for your (probably unnecessarily confessional) story. Sorry to say, although otherwise the hospice experience was wonderful, the hospice chaplain who came to Denice’s parsonage when both of us were there just after her mother died with Alzheimers (remarkably she still recognized all of us) was nearly useless. Perhaps she made assumptions because we were clergy, but she offered only meaningless platitudes, as I recall mentioning “heaven” in a way I found offensive.

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