At its best, hospice provides time and space for end-of-life conversations.
Hospice is not really about death; it’s about how one chooses to live his or her final days. But our culture’s reluctance to talk about and face death honestly often means people and their families do not experience the richness of the hospice journey.
One of the saddest parts of working with hospice occurs when a new patient comes to our service and then dies just a day or two later.
Most of the team doesn’t have a chance to care for the patient and the patient’s family. The myth is that hospice care is only for the last days of life, but hospice is much more holistic than that.
We care for a dying person’s body, mind and spirit, but we also provide guidance and support for family and friends as they accompany their loved one. In fact, the word “hospice” is rooted in the image of a resting place for worn-out pilgrims.
As a hospice chaplain, my job is not to argue with patients’ spiritual beliefs or convert them to my own religion. My calling is to understand their spiritual journey and provide care for them based on their unique spiritual understanding. I have had the honor of hearing a rabbi sing the Shema, being present as Catholic priests anoint the sick and listening to Buddhist monks chant with those transitioning out of this life into the next.
During hospice visits, my goal is to offer my full presence and a spirit of peace while the patient decides where the visit goes and what we’ll talk about.
Sometimes we talk about life and reminisce about meaningful memories. Other times we watch a favorite TV show or listen to music. Sometimes a patient wants to explore harder terrain by pursuing reconciliation with a distant relative, discussing fears about death, exploring hopes for eternity or planning the funeral service.
I remember a patient named Diane who had breast cancer for a decade. She threw herself fully into cancer fundraising walks, attended support groups and walked with many friends through their final months. During her hospice admission, she told the nurse, “I want the chaplain to come visit me, and I want him to help me plan my funeral. But I want him to know me.”
I made my first visit the next day. We had three wonderful months to get to know each other, and I was deeply inspired by her passion for life and intentionality in death.
During our visits, Diane selected scripture readings and songs for her funeral. Her favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” inspired the bells found throughout her home as a reminder that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
At her daughter’s urging, Diane decided she wanted people to ring bells during her funeral service to remember her in a special, personal way. Hundreds of angels got their wings that day, and her family was greatly comforted by experiencing her presence and spirit one final time.
One of the lessons that people such as Diane have taught me is that we tend to die the way we live.
So, live out of the deepest part of yourself, love well and have the courage to have hard conversations and face death boldly when it is time. Welcome the help and support of your medical team—even when it is time for hospice. Then you can experience a death worthy of a beautiful, courageous and passionate life.
Matt Stone is a chaplain with Honor Hospice, Colorado's only hospice owned and operated by physicians.