Support helps when life makes no sense

Column by Dan Hettinger


It just does not make sense.

The oldest hospice in Denver, the one that I worked for, has closed. Founded 38 years ago by a Catholic priest who was also a nurse, this oldest in-patient hospice in the whole country began serving the dying and supporting their grieving families. Nearly 35,000 patients were served. The number of family members and friends is immeasurable.

After three decades of ministry in church settings, I was introduced to the clinical setting as a chaplain at Hospice of Saint John. This very special hospice had more chaplains per patient than any other hospice. That is probably why I got my job, because they needed a chaplain to be on-call at night to visit families when a death occurred. Hundreds of times I stood with families as they experienced the reality of their loved one's passing and I helped them negotiate the first sad and confusing moments, often in the very early morning hours. It was a tremendous honor to be with families at this sacred time.

So quickly these families received me into their homes and lives and shared their fondest memories and deepest pain. What I learned about a caring, listening, presence and the breadth and magnitude of grief in our culture exceeded anything I had known or seen before. I only thought I knew about hospice until I was a part of it.

The hospice staff received me into their ranks and in the natural course of doing their work educated me on gentleness and compassionate caregiving. Nurses continually responded to calls for help and ran to the patient's side to provide the appropriate medication, words and touch and returned to the charts in their nurses' station to record their efforts and comply with regulations and best practices of communication in the medical profession. Certified nursing assistants bathed and turned and comforted patients. Medicine did not relieve the pain of one of our male patients. Our CNAs took turns, 15 minutes at a time, to rub his back and be with him, for day after day, so he would not be alone — his family was not nearly as devoted.

During interdisciplinary team meetings, when the doctors, nurses, social workers, CNAs, chaplains, alternative therapy director and bereavement people were all present, I understood why the families were frequently profuse in their gratitude that such care was available at their time of need.

A variety of factors created the perfect storm that caused a dramatic and tearful end to this amazing service. Certainly it was not the lack of need or the competency of the staff, which makes it even more perplexing.

So my grief extends beyond my concern for my next paycheck. I was ministering in my sweet spot and when people needed us, we were there. In a world that needs care, we were providing it. There are other hospices that will serve people; many of them filled with staff from our hospice, some who began their hospice service with Hospice of Saint John, so to think that in a world of need we cannot work as we were baffles me.

There is a group of people who have become very special to me and are my greatest support. In addition to my wife and me, seven new friends make up our community group — that's what they call “small-groups” in my church. Most churches today have some kind of “small-group” ministry. Community groups, life groups, care groups, journey groups are some of the names they use. Small groups help faith work when things don't make sense.

We meet for a little over an hour, once a week, to discuss and study a portion of Scripture, share needs, tell stories and generally live the journey of life together. When my crisis was unfolding I was eager to see my group because I knew they would not pound me with advice or meaningless platitudes, but they would listen and care. That is the kind of care everyone needs when life does not make sense.

Dan Hettinger is president of The Jakin Group, a ministry of encouragement, especially to Christian workers. You can email him at or


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