Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Accumulated Hurt

Occasionally it occurs to me that my job is a hard one.

Three times this week I've already had people comment on the work of Hospice professionals. "Your staff are all angels." "You have been my rock, how do you do it?" "I couldn't do your job." The man who changed the oil on my car after work last week saw my name badge and said, "Hospice? Yuck. That's a bummer. Better you than me." (True, that. I must concur in his case).

It seems that universally, people see those of us who care for the dying as those who are set apart. And perhaps in some ways, some of us are. Perhaps some of us felt called to work with the dying, felt comfortable with death, felt led to embrace their vocation. But I would venture a guess that while this may have called some of us into the work, those noble aspirations have also left some of us with mind-numbing apathy or burn-out, or with questions about suffering which remain unanswered and unanswerable. I would venture a guess that for many of us death is still a great gaping void which we will face with our own fears. I would venture a guess that sometimes we trust that we are immune to the life-threatening illnesses which plague our patients and that perhaps our work with the dying acts as an all-purpose vaccine or Cootie shot which keeps us away from the grim reaper's evil eye.

I want to tell you a little secret, gather in close, for I may only have the courage to say it once while my guard is down and my protective armor is wearing thin in places. We who work in end of life care think about death too much. We are, probably, no less comfortable with it, no less afraid of our own mortality, no less healthy than the general public. We just know its ways better. We know what chain stoke breathing sounds like. We recognize mottled skin. We know what it means when patients pick at the air with their thin fingers. We know when to whisper, and when to speak loudly. We don't hate death any less. We just know it more intimately. And we have to think about it all the time.

But because we think about death all the time, find it lurking in every corner, see it staring us down at every interval, we also may savor the sweetness of this life more. We might. Some of us.

St. Christopher's Hospice, the first Hospice created in England, had engraved over the doorway "The dying are our teachers." It is a phrase which has shaped me in this ministry, and in my own nearly inaudible call. It isn't Hospice professionals who are heroes, who are the angels, who are the steady rock. It is the dying themselves. The ones who can look death in the face and stare it down and allow themselves to breathe deeply of the strength of the life that is left. The ones who see their loved ones who have already passed, and hear their voices calling them and leave their bodies content that they will be embraced on another plane. The ones who writhe in pain and trust our medical team to dose them with mind-altering drugs. The ones who whisper their most intimate secrets and welcome we Hospice strangers into their lives at the end.

I am still learning from my teachers; and there are days when I don't listen well to their lessons. Which is, I realize, why I stay in this ministry. For I have miles to go.