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...]

The powerful ghost in the death choir story

While I have listened to choirs that have bored me nearly to death with their singing, I never knew there were choirs that would sing to you when you are near to death.

Turns out, there are, and there’s a story there.

Jaweed Kaleem, the national religion reporter for The Huffington Post, highlights the small but growing trend of deathbed singers in his recent article on Threshold Choirs.

Death used to happen solely at home or in a hospital, with company limited to family, close friends and clergy. Solemn music would be reserved, perhaps, for the funeral. But as the options for the end of life have grown to include hospice, palliative care and other avenues that recognize not only physical but also emotional and spiritual well-being, Synakowski and like-minded volunteers are offering another service to the dying: soothing through a cappella song.

Each week, Synakowski and between five and 10 people gather around an imaginary bed to practice original songs written for the dying. The D.C. circle formed in January, and is one of the newest in a little-known, mainly U.S.-based network that began in Northern California 13 years ago and now includes dozens of groups across the country.

The full potential of web journalism is on display in Kaleem’s superb article. Just when you start to wonder what a deathbed song might sound like, the article drops in a sound clip of the choir performing two original songs. He even includes a slideshow of various choir groups and the people they sing for. From start to finish, it’s well-done, a solid piece of reporting.

But an article on death choirs shouldn’t be haunted by a holy ghost.

The choir members are recruited from churches, sing in churches and their practice session opens “as if it were a worship service.” So why don’t we hear more about the religious angle? The closest we come to finding out what sort of relationship the groups have toward religion is a line buried in a description of the singing events:

[Read more...]


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