Health care workers and practitioners across multiple disciplines around the state will come together next Tuesday to find ways to make patients’ last days on earth meaningful and even enjoyable.
They’ll be at the 27th annual Thomas Nevola M.D. Symposium on Spirituality and Health at Colby College. This year’s topic is spirituality in end-of-life care.
As Dr. Fred Craigie, the symposium’s organizer, said in an email, “Culturally, we don’t talk very much about death.” But these conversations are important, not just as we think about death but also as we think about living, he said.
Spirituality is a catalyst in this setting, Craigie said. Spirituality touches on deep personal values, or as Craigie describes, what is “sacred” or what we “cherish.” When we nurture what we cherish, we experience it and live happier lives, even in the last stages.
Kevin Kozin, a psychotherapist and former hospice social worker based in Lexington, Mass., witnessed this firsthand, he said in an interview. He remembers one remarkable hospice patient he got to know very well through deep, meaningful conversations. One day, the patient, who often was not strong enough to care for herself, invited Kevin to have tea with her. She took great pleasure in being a hostess and serving him tea and cake.
It was this very ordinary human interaction that she enjoyed so much, Kevin said, instead of being pathologized and “just being deemed a sick person as if that’s all she was.”
Carol Rea of Auburn experienced a similar thing with her elderly parents, both of whom lived into their late 90s, she told me. She traveled often to see them in Erie, Pa., and spent lots of time with them. Carol’s mother loved to dress up and look nice, and over the years had collected boxes of costume jewelry.
One day, Carol thought it would be fun to go through them together, and she was right. For three days, they pored over the collection, Carol’s mother recalling story after story from when she had worn them. Carol’s father even joined in the fun.
Looking for joy in the little things brought not only fun, but it also brought health. One day Carol’s father felt particularly ill but he had gone to the hospital previously for a similar condition and nothing could be done for him. He had to decide whether he wanted to go back to the hospital. Carol said he could either ask to be taken to the emergency room or, if he wanted, she would take him to where her mother was staying at the complex to have coffee and doughnuts. He chose the doughnuts. He had fun hanging out and must have forgotten about his ailment because he didn’t complain of it again.
Carol also related the story that when her mother was about 94, she appeared to be dying. While she was going in and out of consciousness, family members came in to say goodbye. Among the family there was a sense that this was her mother’s time, that God was calling her.
But it was just about Christmastime and her mother loved the holidays. The family had gifts all wrapped, and just after Carol’s mother was taken to the hospital, a huge poinsettia had arrived at her home from her grandson David. Carol’s mother also had just ordered all new furniture for her home.
At one point when she regained consciousness, Carol said to her mother, “Mom, God doesn’t want you to die. Why would he have you go out and buy furniture and not ever have you see it? God is not that dumb. And why would God have David order a poinsettia and not have you see it? Why would God have all these Christmas gifts for you? This is not God’s plan. God doesn’t plan things like this.”
Carol’s mother responded in a little voice, “Oh … Oh, I see.” Her voice then began to strengthen. In a half hour, Carol’s mother was sitting up. That evening, she was sitting in a chair. A short time later, she went home. She enjoyed Christmas, her new furniture, and her granddaughter’s wedding the next summer.
Sometimes those little things, the sacred and the spiritual that all make life happy and “worth living,” can mean a lot towards the end of life.
Wes Davis writes about health and spirituality and is a legislative liaison for spiritual care and Christian Science in Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.