South Florida Hospital News
Sunday May 26, 2019
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December 2007 - Volume 4 - Issue 6

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Holidays Present Challenges, Rewards for Hospice Chaplains

The baby died. Sheíd been born with a genetic abnormality and had lived only a few months. The family had hopes of celebrating Christmas with her, but she didnít live long enough.

When the chaplain from VITAS was asked to conduct the funeral service, he decided they should celebrate Christmas with her after all. He made her funeral service a Christmas service. The congregation sang carols, including "Silent Night" by candlelight.

This approach to a babyís funeral shows how creatively hospice chaplains often deal with the challenges of death and loss during the holiday season. By turning the babyís funeral into a celebration, her family, her VITAS team and her community came together to acknowledge a brief but meaningful life that touched many. Itís what hospice caregivers and chaplains s do every day, but during the holidays, itís a particularly poignant mission.

Listen and observe

A big part of VITASí mission is to listen to patientsí and familiesí dreams and do whatever possible to ensure those dreams are realized. One holiday season, an actively dying elderly patient who had just signed on for hospice care asked to go home to her own bed with her family at her side. The VITAS team carried out her wishes that same day.

Once the patient arrived home, four generations of her family surrounded her; her much-loved dog jumped into her bed and kissed her. Within minutes, the patient died peacefully.

A VITAS chaplain and Roman Catholic seminarian who was present with this team says working in hospice has profoundly changed the way he delivers spiritual guidance.

Quiet confessionals and the silent majesty of the nave were this chaplainís most comfortable places. But in hospice he discovered that family gatherings and loving pets donít always allow for silent reflection and meaningful conversation. Sometimes, he told me, we must succumb to the chaos and accept that what takes place at the bedside is intimate Ė even if it doesnít appear so.

In another case, a rapidly declining patient was waiting for her first grandchild to arrive from the West Coast for the holidays. The babyís family was delayed several hours, but the patient kept saying, "I hear the baby crying." Her anxious family explained that the baby hadnít arrived yet, but the patient repeatedly insisted that she could "hear the baby."

The VITAS chaplain intervened, reassuring the patient that her grandchild was coming. The chaplain taught the family to offer comfort rather than correction. By the time the grandchild arrived, the grandmother had slipped into unconsciousness. Nonetheless, the baby was placed in her arms, and pictures of their faces side-by-side remind the family of the generations of love shared.

Honor the seasonís tastes and sounds

A VITAS chaplain and rabbi brings his wife with him during the High Holy Days to visit his patients who live in nursing homes. His wife blows the shofar, a traditional Jewish horn, and they both sing songs and share rituals of remembrance.

The rabbi has noticed that, in addition to his VITAS patients, the facility staff members and other residents tend to gather around. Patients sitting in wheelchairs with their eyes closed often come alive, their eyes growing bright with the awareness of a sacred occasion.

Another VITAS chaplain, who is from the Philippines, tells me that, when he talks about the holidays with his patients and families, he remembers food. In his culture, the favorite foods of deceased family members are cooked in their honor during the holidays and on special occasions. A plate is prepared for them in their memory. This is a way for the living to reconnect with the departed.

Create Rituals

Not every custom is for everyone. Each patient and family member must create ways to make the holidays meaningful. Thatís where hospice chaplains come in; by listening and observing, they help patients and families identify the best ways to celebrate the holidaysóeven as they face death and loss.

Martha Rutland, D Min, BCC, ACPE, Director of Clinical Pastoral Education at VITAS Innovative Hospice Careģ, can be reached at (305) 350-5946.
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