Mourning begins as soon as the word dying is spoken. I learned this as I visited hospice clients for nearly 7 years as an advanced practice nurse and used my spiritual gift of encouragement to bring joy to others. When someone learned about my clinical practice, I often received a sympathetic look as if to convey “Poor you.” Frequently, this was followed by the statement, “It takes a special person to work with hospice patients.” My usual response was, “The nurses who make visits several times a week are the real ones who are special.” In addition, I would add, “If I visited more often, the families and clients would end up comforting me.” This always brought laughter but also reminded me of the inadequacy I felt. Could God be using me to bring comfort and joy to others during such a difficult time? Reflection on Scripture provided perspective as I read, “I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13, ESV).
Ecclesiastes 9:5 is clear: Death comes to all. Even if we are fortunate to live long lives, our bodies eventually wear out. Despite the expected progression leading up to death, caregivers and family made sure I knew their loved ones had not always been in their present condition. They described how they had been smart, perhaps previously employed as a banker or an educator. Due to personal family experiences, I understood that a livelihood had indeed preceded death.
Flowers previously planted and tended by clients once active still bloomed in front of homes. I was offered tours inside many homes whose owners could no longer walk from room to room; I have seen beautiful paintings by people who no longer recall the names of their spouses or grandchildren. I have listened to couples married 50 or more years share their secrets to the longevity of marriage, and I've watched a husband cry while imparting stories about the places he and his wife traveled when she was in better health. I met former seamstresses who produced extravagant wedding gowns and quilters who stitched complex patterns. Retired police officers told stories about their dangerous work. Others' stories made me laugh to the point of tears or even, sometimes, a stomachache. After a particularly long bout of laughter, it was not unusual for a caregiver to come and see what was causing all of the joy!
Caregivers often described the challenges of their new normal. Sons caring for mothers and daughters caring for fathers shared how they had essentially switched roles to become the parent. They recalled being cared for by their parents as children and believed that it was now time to repay the favor, bringing to mind Psalm 71:18: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me” (ESV). As nurses, we can empathize with caregivers because we are experienced in administering care that is considered up close and personal.
I prayed that God would allow my visits to end with someone feeling emotionally or spiritually better than when I had arrived, in the spirit of Ephesians 6:22: “I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts” (ESV). I always maintained professional boundaries and deliberately guarded my heart. Yet, along the way, I met two elderly gentlemen who felt like kindred spirits. We did not have comparable backgrounds but shared similar feelings about certain things. We had brief but deep conversations and always laughed before my visit ended. They told me about their faith, families, and lives in general. They had no idea that what they shared comforted and encouraged me. Both men have since passed away, but the memory of them continues to bring a smile to my face when I reminisce about our time together.
If considering whether to work in hospice care, do not immediately dismiss the idea. You will struggle to maintain boundaries because of the quality time spent together, drawing you even closer. A part of your role is comforting others, but often you will be the one who feels the need to be comforted. Notwithstanding challenges, you may be the vessel God uses to impart joy in the mourning.