On Saying as Little as Possible to a Hospice Patient

“We made a lot of mistakes,” the wife said.

Before I* could respond, she continued talking about how she and her husband had both worked seven days a week until they retired.

“Should’ve taken more Sundays off,” she mused.

Then she veered into mentioning communion in the Episcopal Church, which caused her hard-of-hearing husband to loudly announce, “We used grape juice, ya know,” referring to his Baptist-oriented childhood.

On they chattered for a few more minutes, with me listening, trying to follow their wandering, ever-expanding subjects.

Finally, when each took a breath, I asked her, “What mistakes do you think you made?”

They’d been married over sixty years, and now her beloved husband rested in a hospital bed in their rearranged dining room, his heart frail and failing, cancer spreading from his prostate.

“Never got our children baptized,” she answered quickly. “Too busy.”

“And that was a mistake?”

“Shoulda been baptized so they can go to heaven.”

I began to respond, but hesitated.

Within the split seconds of my hesitation, she asked, “Hey, what do you think?”

This was no longer a debate on grape juice versus wine, but about decisions she’d made for and with their children.

I know why she didn’t receive a quick answer from me, right then as I hesitated, and now as I reflect on that years-ago moment and question. A fundamental goal for hospice chaplains is to not bring in our beliefs. We seek to support the individual’s spiritual journey, to let them take the lead while they are our patients. Sometimes visits are casual and friendly, where—because of the patient’s desires—nothing about religion is mentioned. But religion can be the focus, and this was one of those situations. A mother, married for over six decades, continued to fret over her middle-aged “kids.”

“What do you think?”

In my hesitation, I knew my thoughts. Every life is filled with myriad mistakes. We’re all a bittersweet brew of intentional and accidental bloopers, with some done to us and others done by us. There are deeply felt sins, as if scar tissues on our souls:  adultery, stealing, and deceptions. There are modest acts of human folly: misspoken words, over-eating at Thanksgiving, or not using a car’s turn signal. Everyone makes mistakes . . . what a brilliant revelation, eh? Key times of growth** in my life were jump-started by “mistakes.” I believe in every faith tradition, the Divine response to human errors emphasizes forgiveness and mercy rather than condemnation and punishment.

In my hesitation, I knew my thoughts. Two days after the weary, elderly wife asked me that question, I sat with young parents and their three-year old son to prepare them for his baptism. I emphasized, as I always do, that one of the formal, written questions asked in my faith tradition’s baptismal ceremony is heartrending for parents. It goes like this, “Will you nurture this child . . . that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves?”

They MAY be guided. No parent, ever, can force a child to hope or believe or question in a particular way. A parent, their heart at times overwhelmed with love, their heart at times broken in a thousand pieces, raises children so that each child may choose a path unique to her or him. Yes, the question is about faith, but it’s also relevant for personal values and individual choices. Parents, in their best and worst efforts, try to raise children to be independent.

And so I gave the elderly wife my answer. My responses were neutral, without judgment, and focused on encouraging her to openly talk with the children she’d raised with love. Later, near the visit’s end, I asked if they’d like me to share a prayer. Both of them, a couple since they were teenagers, and now nearing the end of their lives together, responded with, “Yes, please!”

So I prayed, with my inadequate words celebrating their lives and rejoicing in God’s boundless love for each precious, mistake-prone human 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.)

* I first wrote an earlier version of this visit when serving as a hospice chaplain.

** Just a couple of weeks ago, at my other website (www.larrypatten.com), I wrote a different essay that also highlighted mistakes. Mostly my failures and mistakes! You can read it: here.

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