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Hospice: Still a Misunderstood Blessing

I've worked as a spiritual care and bereavement coordinator in hospice for over eight years, and find it amazing this healthcare service is still misunderstood, leading millions of people with life-ending illnesses and their families to miss out on the benefits and blessings of this holistic approach to managing the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, suffering, and stress caused by the illness.

The reason? Patients, families, and even some healthcare professionals, still think it's a "death warrant." When in fact, this couldn't be further from the truth.

A Place for Life's Weary Travelers

The term “hospice” (from the same root as “hospitality”) can be traced back to medieval times when it referred to a place of shelter for travelers. The name was first applied to specialized care for dying patients by physician Dame Cicely Saunders, who began her work with the terminally ill in 1948 and eventually went on to create the first modern hospice in 1967—St. Christopher’s Hospice—in a residential suburb of London.

Saunders introduced the idea of specialized care for the dying to the United States during a visit to Yale University. Her lecture, given to medical students, nurses, social workers, and chaplains about the concept of holistic hospice care, included photos of terminally ill cancer patients and their families, showing the dramatic differences before and after the symptom control care.

The traditional medical approach emphasizes curing with a concern for relief from symptoms and pain. Palliative care, a type of specialized medical care, primarily focuses on relief from the symptoms, pain, suffering, but can also include curative treatment. Hospice care includes pain management and focuses on restoring dignity and a sense of personal fulfillment to the dying by allowing choices, listening, and caring, but not curing.

Hospice Treats the Whole Person

As a philosophy of care, hospice focuses on the “whole person.” It is the goal of the hospice interdisciplinary team to be a blessing for the whole person, emotionally, physically, and spiritually with a variety of skills to ensure that the patient’s unique needs are met as far as possible.

The hospice team normally includes doctors, nurses, aides, social workers, certain therapists, nutritionists, spiritual care staff, and volunteers. Their goal is to help the patient gain strength to carry on with life and improve the quality of life as much as possible. The hospice team is also available to support the family.

The way a patient and his or her family handle the diagnosis of a terminal illness and the possibility of death within months is unique to that individual. How the illness affects the patient, and how he or she responds is influenced by the specific nature of the illness, past lifestyle, family dynamics, cultural influences, and the patient’s world view, among other factors.

The interdisciplinary approach of hospice is designed to take into consideration all aspects of a patient’s experience in an effort to make his or her walk in the shadow of death as comfortable and meaningful as possible. Hospice patients can remain at home, or be in a nursing home or in a hospital.

In conclusion, death is no respecter of persons. We were all born. We all live. And then we all die. Whether this reality is approached from a biblical understanding of the source of our pain, suffering, and mortality, or from a purely materialistic perspective, the fact remains that death of our physical bodies is inevitable.

Those who specialize in hospice care, consider it a privilege and a blessing to walk in the sacred time and space surrounding a patient's preparation to move from this life to the next.

In God's Words

"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me." (Psalm 23:4)

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

(2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

"Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." (Colossians 3:12)

Also read: Matthew 5:7, Luke 6:36, Romans 8:28

In Your Words

  • When you hear the word "hospice," what is the first thing that comes to mind? How did you come to think about it in that way?

  • Have you experienced hospice services firsthand, with a family member or a friend being on hospice? Recall the overall experience and how you felt about it.

  • If your loved one was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and given six months or less to live, would you consider hospice services for pain management and an extra level of care? If yes, why? If no, why not?

In the Words of Others

"You matter because you are you, and you matter until the last moment of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die." Dame Cicely Saunders

"If we listen and observe carefully the dying can teach us important things that we need to learn in preparing for the end of our own life's journey." Robert L. Wise

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