Dignity in Death

Hospice work is an honor and a calling

By Norris Burkes
November 2019

Last year, I came out of early retirement—perhaps better characterized as “premature retirement”—to accept part-time work as a hospice chaplain.

In my new role, I often hear three common reactions when I tell friends I work for hospice.

The reaction that always surprises me is, “Where is your hospital?”

While hospice sometimes happens in a hospital, my work takes place in a patient’s home. I join a team of social workers, nurses, aides and volunteers who schedule individual appointments to provide comfort to people in their final six months of life.

My employer is housed in a typical office building where I go for meetings or to schedule my patient appointments. By midmorning, I’m driving a maze of roads.

I crisscross three counties to find rural homes settled along creeks, sheltered under oaks and pines or nestled in the hollows of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Yes, the view from my personal cubical is often stunning.

The second reaction is more of an assumption: “I’ll bet you get a lot of chances to tell people about Jesus.”

While Jesus is definitely a friend of mine, my job doesn’t come with the supposition that everybody wants him to be their friend.

If I used the occasion of a person’s pending death to push my view of eternity, I’d be quickly fired for proselytizing the dying.

However, that’s not to say I must remain silent about my faith.

I begin my visits by asking patients if they practice any sort of religion or spirituality, giving them opportunity to share their beliefs. In turn, some patients ask me about my faith.

For instance, one patient told me she had no religious beliefs, but she was “ready.” I discovered that she’d been studying the Christian faith and wanted to know more.

But by far, the most common reaction I get from friends is unnecessary sympathy. Folks say things like, “Your job must be so sad” or “I can’t say I envy you.”

My response might surprise you.

I tell them, “It’s not really so hard.” I often add that it’s much easier than the years I spent as a hospital chaplain.

That’s because hospital patients rarely understand they are dying. If they do, they may not be ready to talk about it, especially to a stranger.

Hospice patients enter our program with a full-on acknowledgement that they expect to live less than six months. They are often ready to talk about, even confront, death.

They don’t live in denial, but they are definitely still living. And by living, I mean they are conversing, connecting and conspiring with us to live out their last days in dignity.

Perhaps it’s ironic that in this job with the dying, I rarely feel sad. Even as I watch them live their last moment on earth, I feel nothing but honor to be present for that sacred occasion.

During that time, I often join hands with the family and patient, and clear my throat to say one final blessing. When the patient is Christian, the blessing may sound like this:

“May God take you in his hands and pull you up close to his heart. May you hear the beating of his heart and the direction of his will. Moreover, may you hear the familiar voice of your loved ones and the tender call of God’s invitation. And may you experience the love of both. Amen.”

With that, the patient may shut his or her eyes, allowing me the opportunity to paraphrase the Apostle Paul from 2 Timothy 4:7: “You have fought the good fight. You have finished the race. You have kept the faith.”
As I drive to see my next patient, I often think about my friends who say this job would be too sad for them.

“Sad” is the last word I’d use.

It’s not sad. It’s an honor. It’s a calling.

Norris Burkes can be reached at comment@thechaplain.net. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.

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