Hospice – Each Patient is a Gift

After being in leadership for the Notre Dame Community for eight years, I was searching for a new position to utilize my gifts and experience.  In a previous ministry as Pastoral Associate at St. Patrick’s in Fremont NE, one of my areas of focus was working with seniors, the sick and the dying.  This experience led me to apply for a position as chaplain at CHI Hospice and Healthcare.  That was seven years ago.  In this part- time position as chaplain I visit hospice patients in nursing facilities or in their homes within a 50-mile radius of Omaha. At times I would have 12 to 15 patients which kept me busy several days of the week.  When the Covid pandemic came upon us, I was able only to do phone visits, which was an incredible challenge for this ministry, especially when patients were unable to communicate verbally and I would just speak to a family member.  When possible, I did do some Face Time calls which was helpful.  Yet the physical presence or holding a hand was still missing.

When I first meet a new patient, I invite them to share a little about their family, the work they did, where they lived, etc.  In their sharing often they will begin to talk about their present situation of declining health and how that is impacting them physically, emotionally and spiritually.  Basically, chaplain ministry is a listening ministry, taking them where they are, providing affirmation, encouragement, presence, emotional and spiritual support and prayer.  Each patient is so unique and amazing in their own way.  Some are struggling, some are in denial, some are angry, some are at a point of acceptance, most go back and forth in the process.  Each patient is a gift to me; it is a great privilege to be able to walk this journey with each one and with their family.

Preparing for one’s death is a unique experience, so very special and important not only for the patient, but also for their family and friends.  I call it a “Sacred Time.”  This time provides the opportunity for family to say thank you, I love you, I’m sorry, I’ll miss you and to share stories, to laugh and cry together.  This sacred time prepares the patient to come to acceptance and to let go and enter a whole new and beautiful life with God.

Walking with the patient and family is also a sacred experience for me.  I will share a couple stories.

When I first met a woman in her 80’s, she was determined to get well, was in denial.  As she began to decline, she went through an angry stage of “why is this happening to me?”  Gradually, slowly as she began to lose weight and her appetite, she decided she was ready to die and wanted to die NOW.  She lived on and on week after week.  Then she became frustrated because she could not die.  In fact, she named herself as “the woman who can’t die!”  In our visits together she talked and talked and often could come to an acceptance of the time she still had to be with family and friends, even though she wanted to die.  And, of course, she did eventually die – peacefully with family surrounding her and saying their final good-bye.

Another patient was a woman who had been healthy all her life and was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  This was not supposed to happen to her and she struggled to “wrap her mind and heart” around this diagnosis.   Gradually, she came to peace her situation.  One day when I arrived for a visit all the children were present.  The patient was responsive but tired as she sat in her recliner in the living room.  During the visit one of the sons asked the children to come together in a circle where he stated it was time for them to reconcile with one another and become a family again.  He acknowledged his part in the divisions.  Others joined in.  It was a beautiful moment.  We then gathered around the patient and shared a prayer together after which each person individually gave a blessing to their Mom.  As chaplain, I knew it was time for the family to be present with their Mom and each other.  On my way out the door, one of the children came and asked me to come back because Mom had just taken her last breath.  She died peacefully knowing her children were at peace with one another.  And the children were at peace.  Truly a sacred time for all!