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:

[Read more...]

Is adjunct academia indeed the devil’s bargain?

Screenshot via Slate.com

All the necessary components were there: 83-year-old woman, beloved and career adjunct professor, cancer patient, devout and traditional Catholic, poor both in spirit and pocketbook, released unceremoniously from Duquesne University after 25 years of semester-to-semester service.

Indeed, this piece from Slate easily could have trended toward the martyrdom of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

The hashtag vigilante would have rejoiced, as many students and proponents of better treatment for contracting professors already had claimed her (#IamMargaretMary) as their social media rallying call.

But readers emerge as the only winners in this piece.

Careful, thorough, even-handed treatment of all entities involved leads us to an understanding of this “brilliant” woman who spoke five languages and the life and career choices she made navigating the world of higher education as it evolved into the business model of today.

Be warned: There is no happy ending. I’d say that’s all the more reason to read and reflect on this story and the larger issue at hand involving adjunct professors at religious universities and whose role it is to provide for the sick and elderly.

The author clearly identifies her objective:

Who was Margaret Mary—the person, not the symbol of victimhood? I went to Pittsburgh to find out more about the life of a woman who’d become famous only for her death. I talked to dozens of her family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues. I visited the campus where she’d taught for 25 years, the restaurant where she’d spent nights after her furnace broke, and the house she’d grown up and grown old in. The story I uncovered was more complicated than the story that went viral. The reasons Vojtko’s life ended in misery had much less to do with her status as an adjunct professor than tweeters using the #IamMargaretMary hashtag might believe.

She did find those individuals by retracing Vojtko’s life steps. The approach sounds so simple in our high-tech reporting culture, but it worked beautifully in this case. Among her sources: a Capuchin friar, a friend who offered to buy her a space heater, the handyman who boarded up windows in her home after vandals tried to break in and various students.

We hear from Duquesne, its faculty and labor representatives as well as Vojtko’s lawyer. Their words are interspersed with Vojtko’s own take on the issues, gleaned from her writings, and show the tension between the teacher and her employer:

[Read more...]


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