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Reflections of a Dying Chaplain
By: Alex Caruso
There’s an upside down Christmas tree in Catherine’s living room; she keeps it up it up all year ‘round because she likes the way it makes her feel – full of gratitude.
For Catherine, finding that peace isn’t always easy. She was diagnosed with uterine papillary serous carcinoma (UPSC) in January 2013. Some things in her life have changed, but her faith and feelings of gratitude have remained constants.
When Catherine’s great-grandmother died during her childhood, the family elected to have a wake in the house. It pleased her to see her great-grandmother’s body presented in a simple fashion to family and friends. She found it to be natural and peaceful. That was her first real experience with death.
Catherine was confronted with another harsh reality once again when her dear friend, Sancy was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. Catherine stayed by her friend’s side while she battled the illness and all the while she picked up lessons about life and death that she would carry to her future career as a hospice chaplain. It was during Sancy’s illness that, Catherine began to attend seminary.
Following seminary, Catherine became a chaplain at Montgomery Hospice and eventually became the head of pastoral care. Her time as a chaplain instilled life lessons that she still follows today… such as the sacredness of the present moment which encourages us to always be aware, to make every moment count, and not to do things on the fly.
Catherine has been at the bedside of many people with terminal illnesses during their final days and hours. Catherine recalls that the most important service she provided as a chaplain was to “help people get where they were going” - even if they were not sure where that was exactly. Rather, she helped patients explore their inner strengths. Nurturing the spirit along with the body is an essential component of hospice care. But spirituality is not always something people are comfortable exploring.
What makes a good hospice chaplain? Although there isn’t a set formula, Catherine thinks that she was effective in that role because of her compassion for others and her tremendous curiosity about God/a higher power.
As a result of her life’s work, Catherine now possesses a uniquely informed view point in this final phase of her journey. She too is dying. After soldiering through aggressive chemotherapy and other treatments, she recently had her first meeting with hospice to begin planning her own end-of-life care.. She is now in the same position as those whom she counseled for many years.
Not everyone plans his or her own funeral. Catherine certainly has. She has already planned and personalized the ceremony; there will be balloons at the reception, her favorite hymns will be sung and she has picked two dear friends to speak. “I can’t control my disease, but I can control this.” she says.
When confronted with the question of how her terminal illness affects her state of mind, Catherine replies, “I am in a neutral state. I can begin to make amends and be present in the moments I have left.” This “neutral state” refers to a position of reflection, a time where one can analyze his or her own life, almost from an outsider’s perspective. But Catherine also acknowledges the physical burden of her illness. “I used to be an energetic person, I was interested in anything and everything, but now my energy level has decreased,” says.
Although her body grows weaker by the day, her spirit continues to become stronger. Reflecting on her time as a chaplain she shares this: “Working with hospice has shown me that it is possible to make the transition from this life to the next, and that it is possible to die without fear. It is everybody’s right to die with a tear and a smile, surrounded by joy and those whom they love.”
She remembers how close she became with each hospice patient she counseled, and more importantly, she remembers what she learned from those experiences and connections. She speaks as both a counselor and a patient. Catherine advises others facing life-limiting illness to “get your support system in place. Savor each and every moment but keep yourself grounded. Remember that gratitude will help you through”.
Nurturing the soul at the end of life is essential. Catherine possesses a clarity that one would only have when confronted with as great an obstacle as saying goodbye to the life she loves so dearly. She is aware of a higher power and states, “there is a natural yearning for “the other” and a juxtaposition of what is necessary and what is not necessary.” For Catherine, family and God fall into the category of what is truly necessary. Her illness has strengthened many of her relationships – both with God and her family. Catherine describes her husband as “a rock” - “there is no typical good day or typical bad day. But he holds me on the nights when I cry. He will miss me terribly and I am sad to leave him”.
Despite illness, Catherine still practices what she preaches. She nurtures her spirit. Whenever possible, she actively practices mindfulness as she has helped so many others to do.. She refuses to abdicate her life to cancer and has upcoming plans to attend a bridge tournament. She has also gotten into the habit of making gratitude lists. At the end of our interview, Catherine sat with both a smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She took a moment to once again voice what she had learned from being both a hospice chaplain and a human being afflicted by serious illness. “Life is very beautiful. We should all honor each day and savor each moment and keep what is good and holy with us. Cut the crap, drop the petty things and let the love shine through.”
Alex Caruso is an NHPCO employee who works within the department of strategic communications
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