Just this morning, a hospice patient of mine died. I’ll call her Chris. When Chris was admitted to hospice, two doctors agreed that if her disease followed its normal course, she would likely die within six months. She lived for three more years.
When my mother came under our hospice care, I thought she’d live two more years, but she passed within a month. There isn’t an exact science to predicting the end of life. James Dillett Freeman, in The Story of Unity, reports that Charles Fillmore was so thorough in his “denial” of death that at Myrtle’s passing he said, “It is not our custom here at Unity even to mention the visits of the ‘last enemy’…”
You cannot affirm yourself out of death. That said, I can readily say that I have seen (as many in Unity have) situations in which death looked very close, and then change occurred and some improvement manifested. My concern, though, is that as a movement that is oriented to the “positive,” we can inappropriately turn away from the reality of death, turn away from the reality of what a dying person is going through, and what their loved ones are going through.
Hospice chaplaincy specifically, and ministry at the end of life in general, is a ministry of acceptance. This includes accepting the dying person’s beliefs without trying to change them; accepting the coming “transition” for the person, their family and friends; acceptance by the person of his or her self, choices, and life.
There can be such beauty and tenderness, as walls come down and the whole circle of people involved can risk letting their love out, letting their tears out, even letting their laughter out. It is sweet and amazing to me how readily people can laugh: I’ve been at the bedside of a patient who died minutes earlier, and asked the family to tell me about him. Many times a quirk or an endearing trait of the person who has passed is recalled by their loved ones, and laughter blossoms at memories of the deceased’s stubbornness, or how he loved shopping, or the quirky trinkets he collected.
What do people want at the end of life, and how can we serve them?
As mentioned above, acceptance is a big piece of the puzzle. As we talk—yet mostly listen—to our congregant, we can affirm what is good and loving and adventurous in them. We can do this without “correcting” them for having negative thoughts, or anger, or hurts. A woman or man at the end of life has little use for platitudes—they want to keep it real; real feelings, real sharing, and sometimes real quiet. Just being. There is a powerful urge to talk to fill the space, but silence can be wonderful, too.
Dying folks want their loved ones near.
It’s observable anecdotally, but also through research, that a high proportion of terminally ill people can “hang on” for major events at the end of their life:
a wedding, a birth, the arrival of a far-off son on leave from the military. I ministered at the wedding of a young woman with cancer who declined very rapidly. At the rehearsal the night before, she could barely stay conscious in her wheelchair. But the next day, she stood up for a minute and said “I do.” Twenty-five hours later I was there at the hospice when she died, tearful but happy for her that she got to marry the man she loved in the wedding she’d planned.
My own sister Nadine passed away last May under the care of Odyssey Hospice, where I work. Much of my professional knowledge and insight did not serve me, when it was my own family member. It wasn’t until her doctor mentioned hospice that she was really ready. I barely had the courage to even mention hospice to her. I’d recommend to ministers and licensed teachers that if you have a loved one who is dying, you let someone else be the spiritual “provider.” You can just be the son or daughter who is dealing with your feelings.
Dying people want prayer.
Pray in the moment spontaneously with the patient. Also, pray the Lord’s Prayer with them (assuming they are Christian). Amazingly, even people with fairly advanced dementia will often be able to verbally join in on the Lord’s Prayer, and the spiritual and emotional comfort it brings is poignant to everyone present.