Category: Hospice

It’s The Little Things…

In the chapel at our hospice house, where I volunteer one morning a week, there are three little straw baskets.  Each hold a simple knitted square measuring about 6 inches squared with three separate designs.  A heart, a cross, and the star of David.  I’ve never met the ladies who knit these squares.  But I have seen people leave holding one.  I don’t know who knits them.  I only hope that these anonymous knitters realise how comforting it is for a visitor to say a prayer to whoever their God is, and leave with one as a momento of a passing.  It’s only a simple piece of knitting.   But don’t the simple things tell their own stories?  What bought this person to be knitting squares for hospice?   Perhaps they lost a loved one there?  Why do they knit?  Perhaps they are housebound of disabled themselves.  

This wonderful quote sums up how those little squares are making difference to lives….

“Knitting may not, on the surface, seem relevant to engines that run the world, but at its essence, it is actually quite vital. For knitting, which can express so many emotions, most often expresses love. And when all else is lost , LOVE is what most often stays with us.” Melanie Falick, Lit. 2002.

Thanking all those knitters who create little squares of love for those who need them. Because LOVE is the real engine that runs the world.  Without it, we are all lost.

What People Talk About Before They Die

This article was written by Kerry Egan, Specail to CNN. Editor’s Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of “Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago.” Sometimes things just need to be shared. And this is one of them. Thank you Kerry.

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work. I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

“I talk to the patients,” I told him.

“You talk to patients? And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?” he asked.

I had never considered the question before. “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer? Do you lead them in prayer? Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated. “Sometimes. But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor’s voice. “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk. I mostly listen.”

“Huh.” He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor’s packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

“And I asked her, ‘What exactly do you do as a chaplain?’ And she replied, ‘Well, I talk to people about their families.’” He paused for effect. “And that was this student’s understanding of faith! That was as deep as this person’s spiritual life went! Talking about other people’s families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student. The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame. At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions. Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain. I visit people who are dying – in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes. And if you were to ask me the same question – What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain? – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave. Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not. And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents: Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it. It’s probably the first place we’ve been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love: A husband gently washing his wife’s face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband’s no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don’t learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it. It’s not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques. It’s discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely. Monstrous things can happen in families. Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you. They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents. They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone’s rage. They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul. People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved. They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned: forgiveness. The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully – just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

The Editors – CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death • My Faith

One Day At A Time

It’s a familiar saying.  But until today I’d kind of felt it was ‘owned’ by our friends in AA. 

How wrong I was.   Because when we are going through any difficulty, it’s  mostly ‘getting through it’, not , ‘getting over it’.  And in the struggle, the ‘one days’ turn into ‘one weeks’, and ‘one months’ and so on.  Then the other trueism ‘time is a healer’ kicks in, although it may take many years to come to peace and resolution.

Yesterday I saw the true meaning of ‘one day at a time’.  I was working the front desk of our incredible local hospice, when I noticed a lady walking slowly with a frame.  A couple of visiting kids were being a little boisterous and I hung back in the corridor to ‘watch her back’ and keep them away if they headed off in her faltering direction. 

We have many visitors and some are very old so I really wasn’t sure if she was a patient or a visitor.  I slowly caught up to her and said hi.   This lead to a wonderful conversation about the men’s open finals that had aired the night before and sport in general.   I immediately was drawn to this intelligent and humorous woman eager for some conversation.  She introduced herself and told me a little of her story.  A week ago she had been very sick and told there was nothing anyone could do.  Following a simple procedure, something unexpected happened.  She felt good.  Stronger, and for the first time in months hungry.  “I don’t know what is going on with me.  But I’m taking it one day at a time”.    She also felt that being relieved of the daily worries of running a house, and comforting everyone else about her diagnosis a weight had been lifted allowing her body to start something unexpected.  Whether is it ‘time’ or ‘a miracle’ she was grateful for every single day. 

So it hit me.  Here was a woman so grateful for the simple feelings of hunger and strength.  Things that I take for granted all the time.  Hunger to me is an aggravation.  I’m overweight, love food, and never want to feel hungry again.   I suddenly realised that even ‘hunger’ is an incredible gift.  It’s a marker of good health.  Of your body working exactly the way it should.   And strength.  I’m a strong woman and think nothing of grabbing the other side of a fridge of washing machine to move it (although the trash compactor did a number on my back this week).   I have always taken my strength for granted.  It has been useful, but not appreciated.

She’s in my prayers.  I’m praying for her continued good health.  This wonderful 64 year old woman, who told me  ‘this place is like a bloody spa! is living every day.   We have a date for next Tuesday.    While she is grateful for every day of  feeling better physically and mentally, I’m counting the days until I can see this inspirational woman again. 

And I’m thanking her for teaching me not to fear ‘hunger’ and take ‘strength’ for granted.   To celebrate these two incredible gifts I have been given.