Hospice and Spiritual Care

Doug Peterson, Chaplain
Marcus Daly Hospice Services
1200 Westwood Drive
Hamilton, MT 59840

Hospice and Spiritual Care

I love my job as Chaplain for Marcus Daly Hospice. Over the past seven years I have had the privilege of accompanying hundreds of patients, families, volunteers, and hospice staff on the difficult and sacred journey that is end of life. Hospice care is holistic and interdisciplinary, which is another way of stating the obvious: that the last months of our lives are very much like the rest of our lives: a complex mix of physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and cultural experiences and relationships. Hospice care sees the whole patient, not just a diagnosis or disease.

Probably the biggest misconception of hospice is that our care is about death and dying. In fact, hospice is primarily about promoting the health and wellness of the patient and their family. We care for the patient’s medical, financial, relational, emotional, and spiritual needs. We strive to alleviate suffering and raise quality of life for both patient and caregivers. Hospice provides the support and resources patients need to be able to spend their last weeks and months of life at home or where ever they want to be: safely, comfortably, and peacefully.

We are an “end of life” program, which means that a requirement for eligibility is for your doctor to identify a terminal illness that is no longer likely curable and that will likely lead to a natural death within six months or so. A dear friend from out of state died of breast cancer at age 54 earlier this fall. Her husband told me that the hospice people there were incredible—he couldn’t have done it without them. Hospice professionals and volunteers see it as a privilege and honor to come along side families in anxious and difficult times.

Humans are relational creatures, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as my faith tradition says. We all die, eventually. That’s why what hospice does is so important. Each person matters. Every life is unique, precious, and sacred. Hospice care affirms this fact and works to ensure that our patients—and their families—experience dignity, comfort, and caring to the very last breath. We follow up with families for a full year after the death, too, because grief is also a nearly universal human experience, no matter what your faith or philosophy of life.

As the Chaplain on the hospice team, my focus is on the spiritual health and wellness of the patient, the family, and the caregivers. One recent definition of “spirituality” I came across was the “constant, on-going, and dynamic interplay between one’s inward journey and one’s outward journey.” Spiritual wellness has to do with finding meaning and purpose for one’s life; harmony and connection with others; and tending to one’s relationship with the universe.

My role as Chaplain is a little different from my role as a Lutheran pastor. As a pastor, I hang out with church people. I lead and teach a specific group of people within a shared faith system. As a Chaplain, I hang out with both church people and non-church people. I accompany people on THEIR spiritual journeys, based on their experiences, beliefs, values, and philosophies. My job is to come alongside these patients and their loved ones. The patient and the family set the agenda.

I used to joke that, as Hospice Chaplain, I’m “no earthly good.” After all, I don’t know how to administer medications or insert a catheter like the nurses can. I am limited in how much help I can give in navigating insurance premiums or Medicare waivers like the social worker can. I can’t sign orders or diagnose like the doctors can. I can’t set up a hospital bed or deliver oxygen like the durable medical equipment guys. I can’t teach life skills or specific exercises that promote health and safety like the therapists can. I don’t give baths or change sheets like the caregivers do. What good is the chaplain?

What I’ve realized is that my contribution to the whole is to pay attention to the big picture. It is because I can’t do all those other things that I am truly able to notice what is going on. I can see what is working and what isn’t. I recognize who is being heard, and who isn’t. Sometimes there is a story from years, decades earlier that is affecting the family’s ability to deal with the present crisis. I’ve met patients who had left the church years earlier over personality conflicts and theological arguments, but continue to rely on faith for strength and meaning. Sometimes my role is to confess the sins of the church and ask the patient for absolution. Sometimes I help the patient reprogram her thermostat or put the Christmas decorations on the top shelf.

Hospice chaplains provide a variety of religious services. We pray with people, plan and officiate funerals, and delve into conversations about faith and life and death and what happens after death (spoiler alert: nobody knows for sure). I strive to treat each person I meet with dignity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and kindness. These are powerful medicines, I’ve found, that can alleviate the kinds of pain and suffering that morphine and pills can’t touch.

So, if you do find yourself facing end of life choices, please don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor or local hospice provider. We’ll help you determine whether hospice is appropriate now, or maybe in the future. We’ll do everything we can to support you and your family in a difficult and crucial time.

Join us at the Marcus Daly Hospice Tree of Lights on Thursday, December 7th at 5pm at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in conference rooms Blodgett and Canyon View. Take this opportunity to reflect and remember those we love during this special season. Enjoy homemade soup, bread and treats followed by a remembrance ceremony and the lighting of the hospice holiday tree!

Questions and or comments regarding this week’s health column please contact, Doug Peterson, Chaplin at Marcus Daly Hospice Center and Services, a service of Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, 1200 Westwood Drive, Hamilton, MT 59840. Working together to build a healthier community!

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