By Davlyn Duesterhaus, MRS
Home hospice brings, with the program, a team of professionals, but most importantly, it brings a multitude of possible blessings, insights, and healing for the patients, families/friends, and even staff. Currently I am journeying with a patient who is in his 90s, has a compromised heart, and shows signs of some senility and confusion. He had to move to north Texas, where his daughter Betty and her family live, because he needed a dryer climate. Jane, his wife, remained in south Texas with her family. This is a second marriage for each of them. They visited on the phone one or two times daily to keep in touch. Joe mourned the loss of not being with Jane and oftentimes, in my visits, he would talk about how they knew each other from school days and yet went separate ways, marrying someone else. After their spouses died and a few years passed, they joined their hearts and vows in marriage.
In the initial patient visit, Joe repeatedly referred to himself as a bad person because he left his wife. Guilt was an issue as well. His life of going to church, studying the Bible, and trying to be a witness to his religion were no consolation for him. After several visits with Joe and hearing his life review, he shared a sermon that he remembered helped him. It was that sermon that contained the seed that unlocked his guilt and his viewing of himself as bad. Together with God’s grace and mercy, we threw all that out the window of his room. He said his neck pain lessened and his heart felt lighter. In subsequent visits, Joe referred to throwing those thoughts out the window if they came back and to thanking God for taking the burdens away.
Some visits later, Joe’s daughter contacted me to say Jane was now a hospice patient and dying. If Joe were to travel to see her it might compromise his health. The home hospice nurse and I met with Betty before going into her dad’s room at the assisted living complex. During the conversation, I suggested that she and Jane’s family try to use Skype so they could see and talk to each other. That afternoon Joe and Jane did visit by using the technology available. A few days later, Jane died. The nurse and I met with Betty and her husband prior to giving her dad the news.
It took some time for the news of her death to sink in, and when it did, he cried, talked, or jabbered to be more exact, and cried some more. After Betty noticed my eye contact with her, she moved toward her dad, hugged him, held him, and they cried together. Ultimately, all the details were worked out for them to travel more than 500 miles. Meds, oxygen, tickets, etc. were all handled quickly so they could leave the next morning.
After his return from the funeral, I went to see Joe. He was beaming as he shared the events of the few days, including his gratefulness to his daughter and son-in-law for getting him there. By going to south Texas, Joe realized more deeply, the many blessings they did have in the few years of being married – memories, companionship, roots, and love. He also came to know how many folks remembered him, missed him, and wished him well. Joe had struggles with abandoning his wife, being selfish, and being resented. He learned otherwise from the visit. Assumed feelings on the part of each family were proven wrong. Betty experienced a healing of her anger and felt her stepmother’s family had a similar response. That journey has become a forerunner of Joe’s final journey – Heaven.
It is an honor to serve the patients and families in our hospice program. The stories, the vulnerability witnessed, the struggle between living and dying, the various stages that intertwine with the physical decline, all make for a lived human document that unfolds as long as time provides. The story of Joe illustrates, in a minute way, how home hospice can affect or change lives of patients, families, and staff. Hospice chaplains have the privilege to be part of the blessings, insights, and healing in the hearts of their patients. Feedback from most families and friends of the patients also reveals their realizing a new vision for living life in a richer way. An additional blessing for Joe in the days surrounding Jane’s death was that of a son resuming contact with his dad. He had not been in communication for quite some time. I witnessed a twinkle in Joe’s eyes and grin from ear to ear the day he told me that he had heard from his son who lives in west Texas.
“May I Walk You Home?” by Sr. Joyce Rupp and Joyce Hutchison, “The Four Final Things That Matter Most,” by Dr. Ira Byock, and “Olivia,” by Sister Olivia Prendergast (foundress of the hospice where I serve) are resources containing experience, knowledge, and true hospice stories. Using what I have learned from these books and remembering what patients have taught and still teach me, I give thanks to God for the 12 years of ministering as a hospice chaplain, both in home care and for the in-patient unit. Blessings, insights, and healings abound!
Davlyn Duesterhaus is staff chaplain assigned to the hospice program for the in-patient unit and home care, a part of the Baptist St. Anthony’s Health Care System (BSA), in Amarillo, TX.