As a chaplain with Hospice of the Red River Valley, I have the privilege of providing spiritual support to many of our patients and their families. My passion and interest in the spiritual dimension of hospice care emerged from my own experience.
When I was twenty-eight years old (thirty-two years ago), my dad died from lung cancer. He was able to remain in his home due to the support and care of his children and an area hospice program. In a formative way, my dad’s death and my early experience with hospice care significantly shaped my understanding of the spiritual journey, particularly during this season called “end of life.”
The hospice staff encouraged us to talk openly with each other and to take notice of what Dr. Ira Byock has come to call the “four things that matter most”: expressing love, saying thank-you, forgiving others and asking for forgiveness. Generally, these four practices are not only at the heart of what sustains healthy relationships in this life, but are also essential for meaningful and grace-filled goodbyes. I have found this to be true regardless of whether one has a strong spiritual tradition or religious affiliation—or none at all.
In my dad’s case, he had long been alienated from the church of his childhood, which was Catholic. He also had some significant relationship issues. Accepting that the end of life was in sight became an opportunity to consider our spiritual needs in a new light. The question we were looking into was, “What might bring healing and reconciliation to our family relationships and also to the relationship between my Dad and his higher power?”
After some conversation with my dad, he acknowledged that he would like to see a priest, even though he felt guilty and undeserving. I made the call. The priest came as quickly as he was able. I can honestly say that in the many calls I have made on behalf of our hospice patients, rarely have I noted anything but eagerness on the part of spiritual leaders in response to the spiritual needs of those who are “turning toward home.”
The priest’s visit, confession, communion, the baptism of a new grandchild and the extended family praying around my dad’s bed—all profoundly changed the spirit of those last days. It didn’t matter that each of us, my dad’s five children, were following very different spiritual paths. When my Aunt initiated prayer with her rosary, we all joined in. The words of the Hail Mary were particularly poignant in those final hours…“Pray for us now and at the hour of our death…” What I had previously judged to be an “empty ritual” seemed to come alive in those moments.
When one Aunt handed my Dad a broken rosary blessed by the Pope, he hung it on his bed and said, “It is broken, just like I am.”
From a Dad who lived most of his life spiritually troubled, came these humble and beautiful words. In his dying we were able to receive some of the most healing gifts of his life…
And my life has never been the same…
About Hospice of the Red River Valley
Hospice of the Red River Valley is an independent, nonprofit hospice serving more than 30 counties in North Dakota and Minnesota. Hospice care is intensive comfort care that alleviates pain and suffering, enhancing the quality of life for patients with life-limiting illnesses and their loved ones by addressing their medical, emotional, spiritual and grief needs. For more information, call toll free 800-237-4629, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hrrv.org.