Sensitive feature looks at caregivers’ work with the dying

Thank God, literally, that not all religion news stories are about terrorists or same-sex marriage or separation of church and state. They don’t all even snark at fundamentalism.

Some stories just try to help us understand. And feel.

Stories like a Boston Globe feature on clergy who care for the dying.

Written by a Globe correspondent rather than a staff writer, the story is an old-fashioned feature. It asks spiritual caregivers who and what they encounter — types of people, their thoughts and feelings and challenges — and how the caregivers cope.

The very first three paragraphs show the sensitivity the writer brings:

They do not prescribe medication, plump up pillows, or serve soothing broths, but for hospice patients — and their families — spiritual caregivers often ease the pain that hurts the most.

“The emotional comfort comes first from the companionship, accepting people exactly where they are, acknowledging as they certainly know themselves that they are coming to the end of life, and being able to reassure them that it’s OK to die,” said Rabbi Herman Blumberg.

Spiritual care has always been a part of hospice programs, but chaplains interviewed for this article report that patients and their families increasingly recognize the need to heal the mind and soul, even as the body is failing. Behind this trend, they say, is that people are less likely now than in the past to view spirituality as the exclusive realm of religion.

The article talks at length on the Jewish perspective (more on that later), but it also brings in a variety of other traditions: a Unitarian, an Old Catholic priest and two from the United Church of Christ.

Especially insightful is the observation that because people are “less likely now than in the past to view spirituality as the exclusive realm of religion,” the clergy must sometimes mute their own doctrines.

“There are times when Blumberg puts his yarmulke in his pocket before meeting a patient for the first time,” the article says, referring to the rabbi. Adds the Unitarian Universalist: “As a spiritual care professional, you have to have it in your DNA that you’re there to support the patient’s choice, not there to evangelize or proselytize.” And says the Rev. Diane Christopherson, one of the UCC ministers: “Spiritual care is not about a chaplain’s own religious background or needs. If a person had talked about Jesus as significant to his or her spiritual perspectives, I might ask an open-ended question inviting further self-reflection and expression.”

Then what do caregivers offer? Often reflection. If someone worries about an affair he had, the minister leads him into a discussion about “why people have affairs.” If they ask what comes after death, the caregivers guide them into a “conversation about their perception of afterlife.”

The priest is asked at length about conquering fear:

“Sometimes I will say something like, ‘Are you afraid?’ Then they’ll talk about those fears,” he said. “You are looking for that inner peace of the patient. . . . It may be a family issue that has never been resolved or a worry about what will happen to my spouse or children. You can be 95 years old and still worrying about your kids.”

The caregivers also try innovative approaches like reading poetry and bringing books of artworks. They may be asked to help arrange reconciliations with family members. And one caregiver told of a man who denied at first that he had a terminal disease:

“We talked about what was important for him; we didn’t talk about his dying,” she said. “What was important to him was being strong and not giving in. We spent a lot of time talking about his spirit being strong — nothing was going to take that away from him, but that his body was pooping out on him. He was able to make that distinction so that he did eventually have a peaceful death, even though he never wanted to die.”

One nitpick in this otherwise fine article: the choice of clergy interviewed. It runs from moderate to liberal. Granted, Boston is not the most conservative city, but Baptists do minister in every state of the Union, even Alaska. And it shouldn’t have been hard to find a Roman Catholic priest in one of the largest archdioceses in the U.S.

Also odd are the six paragraphs toward the end, dealing solely with Jewish attitudes toward death. The nugget is that Judaism so strongly emphasizes l’chaim, to life, many Jews have more conflicts in end-of-life issues — when, for instance, to “move from aggressive care.”

That said, this article is a reader service on several levels. It’s a peek into the caregivers’ vocation and end-of-life issues. It’s also a brief but helpful catalog of methods and approaches you can use when your own loved ones near the end of life.

And the article can even help us before we reach the end. So many patients in the story had to talk out matters like reconciliation with family, or acceptance that physical life is finite, or what comes after death. If we can work on settling such things now, we can be better prepared to accept our final chapters in peace.

About Jim Davis

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