Hope for the journey: support for the terminally ill



I didn’t know what to expect when I became a hospice nurse and found myself in the daily company of the terminally ill. At first I hid behind nursing skill and professional demeanor, but that proved to be a flimsy shield.

The most aggressive medical treatment had failed these patients and professional demeanor doesn’t go very far with people whose time is limited. I stumbled along for months until I noticed that it’s hope that makes all the difference. We can foster an environment in which hope can thrive in a number of ways.

It’s difficult to have hope for the future when pain and discomfort scream for attention. Hospice and palliative care professionals know how to manage pain and other distressing symptoms and should be called upon to do so.

We should never wait for terminally ill people or their families to request visits from representatives of the church. They should not carry the burden of staying connected. Occasional phone calls and regular visits speak volumes, even if the offers of assistance are declined.

The cowboy who wears his boots long after walking is possible, the always well-groomed lady who insists on make-up and manicures, or the football fan who continues to dress in the home team uniform generally have a better quality of life than those who submit to the anonymity of the dreaded patient gown. Celebrating people’s individuality can help them to reclaim their lives. We need to avoid putting on our “visiting the afflicted” face.

If we are representing the church, visiting the terminally ill may involve the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Then it’s good to step out of the ministerial role and spend some time connecting, one person to another. Long ago I made a rule for myself: Stay five minutes after I’m ready to leave. Time and again, those last five minutes have proven to be the most fruitful.

One of the greatest sources of suffering during a grave illness is the feeling of being burdensome and useless. But every human being is capable of teaching and giving, right up to the end. I’ve been the recipient of tips for playing the stock market, words to dance hall songs, and instruction in the finer points of bull-riding. I may never have need for any of it, but it was a delight to see the hope in their eyes when they felt they were imparting something useful to another.

Anything that calls suffering people out of themselves to extend care to others should be encouraged. I recall a tiny, arthritic woman furiously crocheting a baby blanket for our hospice chaplain. “That girl’s 40 years old, having her first baby,” she explained. “She deserves a blanket, at least!” She groaned from the effort, but I’d never seen such an angelic smile on her face.

Often the life of the spirit flourishes as the life of the body declines. Consider making prayer requests of the terminally ill, sharing as much detail as you can about the needs of individuals in your community. A patient who suffered from depression was asked to pray for a young mother experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. She took her mission quite seriously and anxiously awaited the latest news about her charge. Her hope resurrected, she outlived the doctor’s projections by several months as she served as spiritual midwife for a new human being.

There is nothing so hopeful as laughter. Every person has a sense of humor, and tapping into that can build a connection faster than anything else. Occasionally my jokes have been poorly received, but each time I just asked forgiveness and permission for a fresh start.

I’m convinced that what makes us embarrassed and anxious to leave the room is not only the presence of the suffering person, but also our own “issues.” It helps to revisit the story of our own lives because, if there is unresolved grief from the past, it will surely cast a shadow over the present situation.

Standing by our brothers and sisters who experience intense suffering is the simplest and most difficult thing we can ever do. Of all the people who loved Jesus, there were few willing to stand at the foot of the cross. But what I’ve learned from “foot of the cross” experiences is this: It doesn’t take strong hearts to do this difficult work; it builds strong hearts. And grace abounds.

Kathy Kalina, a registered nurse, is the author of two books, Midwife for Souls: Spiritual Care for the Dying and Living the Final Season.