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March 30, 2016

Hospice Reflections

By S. Craig Greer, M.Div.

As I approach my 56th year, I have to pause to look back over my life.  That includes reflecting on my 16 years in hospice.

I had a variety of careers over the years – reporting the news, recruiting business and industry in North Alabama, ministry, marketing, grief counseling – all which eventually led me to work in hospice.

How did I get here?  I am not totally certain, but I am sure it has to do with the impact of grief and loss in my own life.  The death of my brother at the hands of a drunk driver when I was 13, impacted my view of the world.  It was more than 40 years ago and no one talked about grief back then.  I knew from an early age life was fragile and death was a reality.

In seminary I worked as a chaplain in a hospital and for the first time had to truly confront my own grief and survivor’s guilt that had become ingrained.  I also recognized I was able to be present in uncomfortable moments, when there are no words to heal the hurt of death.

My mother’s death in agony in a hospital with “one last round of chemo,” also influenced my outlook.  I was sure there had to be a better way, as she lay gasping for breath.  No one told us this was part of the dying process; her symptoms were not managed well.  Sure, I had heard of hospice, but like so many, I didn’t know what it was.

When I had the opportunity to work in hospice, I jumped at the chance.  Not knowing what to expect – never expecting what I would find.  I found a treasure in being present with people in life’s most difficult situations.  I have seen the depths of human despair and the triumph of the human spirit.  I have seen tears of grief and laughter of a life well-lived.

The faces and stories are vast and beautiful – from all walks of life, all economic backgrounds, many different races and faiths.  I have been in roach infested houses, shacks with holes in the roof and mansions.  All of these people share the human condition and each person and family member had a story to tell.

There is the veteran who didn’t want to take his pain medicine and when asked why, he said it was the last thing he could control and he was going to be in control – a unique individual.  Then a fellow I met who said he didn’t believe in God, but he still allowed the chaplain to come and share a Coke with him on a regular basis.  He would reveal that he took in a bi-racial child in the 70’s and was rejected by his church – it wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God, but he lost faith in religion.

There is a woman I used to visit with a velvet Elvis painting in her trailer.  She was a beautiful-free spirited woman who made cane chairs and tried to make the most of every moment.

I have cared for friends and family members.  My dad’s death was very different from my Mother’s.  He desired hospice – though he died within 10 days – it offered a chance for healing for both of us and a peaceful passing for him.

I have worked with the most awesome nurses, social workers, chaplains and certified nursing assistants.  We have supported one another through the years.  Not many understand what we do, speak our language or get our sense of humor in the midst of pain and suffering.  Even fewer see the beauty and wonder we experience every day in our encounters with our patients and families.  Yes, we give a lot in our jobs, but we get so much more through all these experiences.

After 16 years – I still love hospice and the people we serve.