For most of this year, I have been a chaplain to persons in crisis. The pager goes off at 2 a.m. and you know it’s serious. So you go to the hospital and console a family who’s in shock that an otherwise healthy spouse just dropped dead from an aneurysm. Or a heart attack. I have certainly been enriched by these experiences. To be among the first responders is a holy privilege.
But now my attention turns to hospice chaplaincy, a longer-term relationship that will resemble crisis ministry but will have its own richness and mystery.
I think of my cousin’s husband who died about four years ago and hospice came in to help. In that time, two other local friends were assisted in the dying process through hospice.
Hospice is a type of care and a philosophy of care that focuses on the palliation of a terminally ill or seriously ill patient’s symptoms, according to Wikipedia. These symptoms can be physical, emotional, spiritual or psychosocial, if not all the above. Hospice care focuses on bringing comfort, self-respect and tranquility to people nearing death.
Patients’ symptoms and pain are controlled, goals of care are discussed and emotional needs are supported. Hospice believes that the end of life is not a medical experience, it is a human experience that benefits from expert medical and holistic support that hospice offers.
The concept of hospice has been evolving since the 11th century. Then, and for centuries thereafter, hospices were places of hospitality for the sick, wounded, or dying, as well as those for travelers and pilgrims. (I like the idea of hospitality in or before the death event.)
The modern concept of hospice includes palliative care for the incurably ill given in such institutions as hospitals or nursing homes, but also care provided to those who would rather spend their days in their own home. It began to emerge in the 17th century, but many of the foundational principles by which modern hospice services operate were pioneered in the 1950s by a British woman named Dame Cicely Saunders.
Hospice care also involves assistance for patients’ families to help them cope with what is happening and provide care and support to keep the patient at home.
My new employment notwithstanding, I have long been a fan of this concept. For one thing, we’re all going to die, so why not do that with as much dignity as possible? I would want this for myself, and for those I love. I realize not everyone has that choice–fatal car wrecks and heart attacks and the like–but hospice says, “We’re here for you, and we will help you die not alone but in community.”