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Lloyd Wilson remembers his first experience with hospice care: His brother was preparing to marry, and the fiancée’s mother was enduring the final stages of breast cancer. Her health declined fast, and the family scrambled to hold the ceremony on a Saturday afternoon in the mother’s bedroom while she received hospice care.
Wilson said that was the first wedding where he really understood “till death do us part.” The mother died soon after, and Wilson realized: “So much happens at that last part of life that is rich and meaningful and deep that is not talked about.”
Last June, he founded Sonder Hospice, based in Austin, to meet the need he saw for respectful, personalized hospice care. Sonder is not a Christian company, but Wilson and the other leaders are Christians. The group works to care for patients holistically: A nurse helps meet patients’ physical needs, while a chaplain and social worker help meet emotional and spiritual needs.
The end of life can be deeply painful and challenging, often marked by anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Yet Christians working in hospice have opportunities to serve patients, families, and churches in these critical moments.
In hospice, Medicare and insurance cover the medical care plus other services like counseling and chaplaincy. Grady Summers is a pastor, Biblical counselor, and chaplain with another hospice company in Austin. “There are some believers who are very at peace when it comes to passing, and there are some that are really wrestling with it and they’re afraid,” Summers said. For the latter, he asks what they fear—the process of dying or where they’ll spend eternity—and then tries to help them accordingly.
To bring Christ into the working environment where I am … is the most exciting thing.
For non-Christian patients, it’s more complicated: Medicare restrictions prohibit hospice chaplains from evangelizing patients. However, chaplains can discuss the gospel if a patient asks questions. Sometimes just building a friendship with patients leads to opportunities.
Summers remembers his first meeting with a handsome man in his 50s who was dying of bone cancer. The patient was cursing God for letting him get sick, but he still wanted weekly chaplain service. As they met, Summers tried to listen well and understand the man instead of challenging him. Summers told the nurse, “There may come a time when he asks for me. I need to know right then, and I’ll come.” He spent a year building the friendship, and eventually the time did come. The man’s pain had increased and death became more of a reality to him. Summers found the man outside his house, upset, mentally rehearsing everything he believed. Summers asked the man if his beliefs were giving him peace. The man said no. Summers asked if he wanted to hear how Summers had found peace, and the man said yes. Summers says he explained the gospel and the patient repented of his sins and professed faith in Jesus.
Hospice workers can serve and comfort not only patients but their families and churches as well. Robert Baldwin oversees pastoral care at High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin. His responsibilities include overseeing hospital visits, funerals, and the deacon of widows and shut-ins. When church member Pat Anderson died in November, Baldwin went to be with Anderson’s wife, Mae.
Mae does not drive anymore, and by the time a neighbor drove her to the hospital, her husband had already died. But the Andersons had used Sonder Hospice, and Mae said Lloyd Wilson held her husband’s hand and read Romans Chapter 8 to him as he died. Three months later, Mae said Wilson was still regularly calling to check in on her and having lunch with her. “I have never met a person who is more dedicated than Lloyd Wilson,” she said. “He is a godsend.”
After Pat’s funeral, Baldwin and Wilson met for coffee to discuss how the church and Sonder could partner. Baldwin hopes to volunteer as a Sonder chaplain and connect church members with volunteer opportunities in hospice.
Those opportunities abound, and hospice care tends to have high staff turnover because the work is so draining. Patients require lots of attention, and repeatedly building friendships with people right before they die takes an emotional toll. Grady Summers originally did not want his job because it would mean focusing on death. But he said he has learned to follow Christ by serving when the door opens.
“Here’s where I’ve found myself,” he said. “To bring Christ into the working environment where I am … is the most exciting thing because now I’m not looking at death, I’m looking at knowing the living Christ in the given moment.”