Thursday, April 23, 2015

A book for the long journey home

One of the most beautiful aspects of community life is the way it becomes another family that includes one's family of origin. A sister's mom was here over the past three weeks, baking every sort of yummy deliciousness that any granny would provide for her children--although on a rather large scale, there being 70+ eager hands reaching for the brownies. When there is a family crisis, we're on it for prayers. Everybody in community followed my sister's 30-year search for a husband and rejoiced when Mr Right appeared in New Orleans. And when a loved one is dying, it matters to all of us.

It used to be a standard spiritual practice:
the prayer for a "happy death." Even better
when your son the priest is helping you pray.
And so today at lunch, a sister who was absent for several months while her mother was on hospice care shared some stories. In once sense, some of what Sister Regina said was anxiety-producing: Her mom lived close enough to the Oregon border that the availability and proximity of assisted suicide has already had an influence on people's attitudes. One nurse, hearing that Sister's mom was on hospice, spoke gushingly of the doctor upstairs who was all into "death with dignity," completely clueless that this might be not only offensive but even frightening to someone caring for a dying parent. Sister had to emphasize what wonderful and respectful care her mother (and all of the family) was receiving; how empowered she was every step of the way to make decisions about her care; how well-informed she and her children (especially the son with medical power of attorney) was kept. Sister also learned of some of the challenges (one might even say threats) the hospice model is facing from changes in the health care landscape.

But she also had some wonderful things to share. My favorite was when one of her sisters vanished for the better part of an afternoon. Her brothers and sisters started to get worried when they realized that none of them (and this is a very large family) had caught a glimpse of her for quite some time.

Suddenly she appeared. With a book.

"You have all got to read this!" she said emphatically.  "Everything we need to know is right here!" She was holding a Pauline classic, Midwife for Souls, by hospice nurse Kathy Kalina. Originally written and published twenty years ago to give hospice nurses extra formation in the spiritual dimensions of accompanying the dying, it has become a kind of vademecum also for families (especially Catholic families) as they walk a loved one toward the Gates of Paradise. Even a family that includes a priest and two nuns among the siblings needs extra help and guidance at a time like that. "That book affirmed everything we had already been doing," Sister Regina told us, "and it let us know the kind of things we would be experiencing--and in the end, did experience." One by one, the siblings poured over the book.

"There were things that happened that the book prepared us for. If we had not read it, we might have responded differently, but the book showed us that, 'See, this really does happen to people'." Pretty soon just about anyone who came within Sister Regina's orbit was holding their own copy. The hospice nurses (of course). The doctor. The family friend. The random person who got swept into the family galaxy's gravitational field. Word is beginning to spread around the whole town: there is a book that tells you everything you need to know about walking with someone on the last steps of the journey of life.

Quiet, peaceful deaths at home don't make it to the front pages of our newspapers (unless the deceased is someone of the stature of Chicago's Cardinal George). Sadly, deaths by assisted suicide (and the hard cases that are used to plead for tolerance of euthanasia) do get the headlines. That can make it seem as though there aren't the necessary tools for helping a person, much less a family, through the process of a natural death. A lethal cocktail just might look like an attractive option. That's why a book like Midwife is so important. As a Pauline sister, I was moved and encouraged that a book we first published years ago is not only relevant and effective, but essential (perhaps more now than ever).

How can we help get the word out to families that are right now struggling with a terminal diagnosis and do not know where to turn for day to day guidance?

Read a chapter:

Reviews of Midwife for Souls:
The Vocation of the Hospice Nurse: "A Midwife for Souls" in Humanum.
Midwife for Souls by Trish Borgdorff (former Hospice social worker)

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