Flags honoring U.S. military veterans in the Garden of Remembrance at Care Dimensions' Kaplan Family Hospice House
People often make two assumptions about those like me who work or volunteer in hospice:
- Caring for people and their families in times of death or dying is so unbearably hard that they can’t understand how we do it, or
- We are so used to death that it doesn’t bother us in the least.
Both assumptions are true in their way.
As hospice clinicians, we are committed to providing those who are dying of terminal illness with the most peaceful and comfortable death possible. We strive to help a person die in a place where they feel safe, have dignity and are surrounded by loved ones. When we are able to achieve this for our patients, death’s sting is lessened. Death becomes less of a heart-wrenching loss and more of a natural process and passing.
There are times, however, when someone’s death hits hard, even for those who work in hospice, especially when it comes at an unexpected time, in an unexpected manner or to a person who wasn’t aged or ill.
Deaths of military service members
In my ministry as a Navy Reserve chaplain, I have faced deaths that were opposite in every way from the deaths I am used to in hospice, deaths that were sometimes violent, sometimes far from loved ones, often unexpected and lacking peace. They have been service members who were fathers and mothers of young children, those planning to be married to a long-time love, others young enough to still be setting their courses in life. All suddenly were gone.
For those who died in combat, I have observed how the military works hard through its ceremony and protocols to reclaim the deceased service member’s dignity and create a sense of order for the families and loved ones where no order had existed, very much in the way hospice team members try to do for our patients. From departing the theater of war to the dignified transfer of remains at Dover Air Force base, to the funeral and interment at places like Arlington National Cemetery, everything is designed to remind those present that this life matters, that this man or woman is valued and honored. For the family members, loved ones and surviving service members, it’s a powerful balm to lessen the sting of these tragic deaths.
Drawing on hospice experiences
Yet, the process of bringing our war dead home is a long one from the battlefield to their final rest, full of repeated rawness and new sorrows for the loved ones. I wondered how I could summon the courage, wisdom and faith to provide pastoral care to friends and family of healthy, young service members who should have had so much life left. Would anything I had learned as a hospice chaplain be of any use? As I’ve walked parts of this journey with loved ones, I found in those moments that the role of the chaplain is very similar. We are the hand to hold or shoulder to lean on in times of tears and weakness. We are the gentle reminder that whatever is happening, this isn’t a journey that you take alone. It isn’t a time for deep theological discussion or easy answers. It is a time instead to gently encourage and give hope, perhaps through prayer and recitation of scripture, and through reflecting to those in grief the strength and resilience they have displayed.
This Memorial Day, like many in the recent past, I will join others at my gym to create a memorial with photos of those we have lost in war - our friends, family members and fellow service members with whom our lives intersected and who no longer stand among us. As I do, I will recall sadly those that I provided for as a chaplain. Although it was a privilege to have served them and their families in that way, it is a privilege I most certainly would have foregone. Instead, I wish it could have been some hospice chaplain 50-60 years down the road who had the privilege to take the final journey with these service members at the end of their long and complete lives, full of the love and family, careers and accomplishments that they were denied.
Learn about our veterans’ hospice program.
About the author
Rev. Jay Libby, M.Div., is a chaplain with Care Dimensions and in the Navy Reserve. He resides in Melrose, MA.