In biology class, we learn how plants grow. A green plant uses sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugars that the plant uses as energy. We call this process photosynthesis, and it doesn’t happen without help. It needs a catalyst, something that helps to expedite the chemical reaction. In photosynthesis, the catalyst is chlorophyll, which absorbs the sun’s light and enables the transformation of energies to occur.
In hospice, the interdisciplinary team is a kind of catalyst. We enter into the lives of our patients and forge a relationship. Through that relationship, we help them face the task of completing a life mindfully, of bringing closure with loved ones. We help them lay the groundwork they need to walk toward that final door, open it and step across its threshold; we help their families wrestle with loss, grief and acceptance. Then, in the fullness of time, our work is done.
In the film Nanny McPhee, there is a scene in which the good lady explains herself. “There is something you should understand about the way I work,” she says. “When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.”
So it is in hospice. We enter as catalysts into the process of dying—a process as spiritual as it is physical. At the beginning, we may not be wanted, but usually we are much needed. When the family’s grief has begun its slow march toward acceptance, when the patient’s prayers have been exhaled like a final, holy sigh—that is when the catalyst has completed its work. That is when we have to go.
Chlorophyl helps along the work of photosynthesis, over and over, without being consumed or altered—but it doesn’t work like that in hospice. The true gift of our work is that we do not emerge unaltered. The work works upon us. The patient teaches us. With each and every death, our spiritual capacity as healers is enlarged—and so we bear witness, with gratitude, to every soul entrusted to us at the close of life.