Healing in Hospice Care
Posted by Rev. Bruce Moore
Early on in my hospice career, I was taught a beautiful lesson: healing does not mean cure. I had a 36 year old patient who was terminally ill with sinus cancer. He had endured several painful and unsuccessful facial reconstruction surgeries which had left his face scarred and bloated. He was married with a teenaged son.
He wasn't sure, at first, if he wanted to meet with a chaplain. He only agreed to meet me if I was part of a joint visit with the case manager, even then, only if I didn't talk too much. He labeled himself a "lapsed Catholic." His wife described him as "a great guy" who was generous to a fault and always willing to offer help to anyone in need. When the case manager and patient's wife moved to another part of the house during our visit, the patient told me he hated God for what was happening to him and then let loose a string of blue language that could have curdled new milk. What do you say to a 36 year old man dying of sinus cancer and cussing from the very bottom of his heart? I wasn't sure. What could I possibly say to make it better or change anything? So I just agreed with him; repeating back his language word for word plus throwing in some blue vernacular I had picked up in seminary – and that's potent stuff! His look of surprise was priceless and then he laughed. At the end of the visit, he asked me to visit again, which I did several times.
We got to know each other better over the next few weeks. He confessed that he hated God because he thought God hated him. He questioned over and over what he had done wrong to deserve such a fate. He wanted to know why was he being punished and, because of his anger, he didn't know how to pray anymore. There was so much more he wanted to do in his life, he was too young to die, he said. Even though he was in hospice, he didn't want to give up. He wanted to be a father to his son and didn't want his son see him give up on life. He had refused to discuss his decline and eventual death with his family. He wanted a cure.
During our visits it began to dawn on me he was still praying and I pointed this out to him. I told him his prayers may not have been prayers one might hear in church but he was still talking to God, angrily, but still talking. Together, we read though the Psalms, which, if you really read through them, has a lot of fist shaking at God. Eventually, together, we stopped asking "why" and started asking "what." What can we do now? How can we take this situation and make it work? Eventually, he asked for a Bible and for a Rosary.
One Monday morning, he asked his son to stay home from school and he spent the day with his son talking to him about life and what it means to him. He shared with his son that he had accepted that he wouldn't be around for much longer and he wanted to his son to know how proud he was of him and that he expected good things from him. He called in his wife as well and the three of them talked about death, what they expected and hoped for each other. He encouraged his family to be kind and compassionate to each other and to others. Later that day, while his son was visiting a friend and his wife was in the kitchen getting some water, the patient died.
I thought a lot about that young man. He went from anger and total denial of his situation to acceptance and eventually to letting go. He was able to say, "I can't do anything about this situation but I still have choices." He chose to express his love to his family and share his hopes and dreams for them. I realized his prayer had been answered. He had been "healed." Maybe not in the way we typically think of healing, as in a cure, but he had been spiritually healed and he was able to share that healing with his family. It was the kind of healing that, over time, spreads out to others and was his last gift to his family and his own memorial.