The notion of caring for those at the end of life's journey is a relatively new one, dating back about 70 years to the work of Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician who began working with the terminally ill in 1948. In 1974, Florence Wald, a dean of Yale University's nursing school, teamed up with a chaplain and two physicians to start the Connecticut Hospice in Bradford, Conn.
Since then, at least 5,800 hospice programs have been organized in the United States, according to the most recent figures available (2013) from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. There's no doubt these programs span a spectrum from highly secular to highly spiritual.
It's the latter that has caught the attention of The New York Times, where the notion that there are religious organizations serving the needs of those in their final days seems to be a rather new concept.
Some background: Until a few months ago, a triple-amputee named B.J. Miller ran the 30-year-old Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, California, where patients went to confront the end of life, receive palliative care and even, in one case, help plan a wedding for the family member of a hospice patient.
Thanks to the Times, we know these things take place in the city by the bay, and what interesting, innovative, totally unique things they are! Read on:
... Miller also seemed to be on the cusp of modest celebrity. He’d started speaking about death and dying at medical schools and conferences around the country and will soon surface in Oprah’s living room, chatting about palliative care on her “Super Soul Sunday” TV show. Several of Miller’s colleagues described him to me as exactly the kind of public ambassador their field needed.
Vicki Jackson, the chief of palliative care at Massachusetts General Hospital ... pointed to the talk Miller gave to close the TED conference in 2015. Miller described languishing in a windowless, antiseptic burn unit after his amputations. He heard there was a blizzard outside but couldn’t see it himself. Then a nurse smuggled him a snowball and allowed him to hold it. This was against hospital regulations, and this was Miller’s point: There are parts of ourselves that the conventional health care system isn’t equipped to heal or nourish, adding to our suffering. He described holding that snowball as “a stolen moment,” and said, “But I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding that in my hand, and the coldness dripping onto my burning skin, the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment, just being any part of this planet, in this universe, mattered more to me than whether I lived or died.” Miller’s talk has been watched more than five million times. And yet, Jackson told me: “If I said all that -- ‘Oh, I could feel the coldness of the snowball ...’ -- you’d be like: ‘Shut. Up. Shut up!’ But no one is going to question B.J.”
Now, at the morning meeting, Miller began describing the case of a young man named Randy Sloan, a patient at U.C.S.F. who died of an aggressive cancer a few weeks earlier at Zen Hospice. In a way, Sloan’s case was typical. It passed through all the same medical decision points and existential themes the doctors knew from working with their own terminal patients. But here, the timeline was so compressed that those themes felt distilled and heightened.
There's more, of course: How it turns out that Randy Sloan, a mechanic, had helped outfit a motorcycle for Miller, to be operated with one hand, and how the Zen Hospice staff helped Sloan in the final days of his life. It's a tender story designed to tug at the heartstrings, which it does.
By the way in which the Times presents this, however, you might imagine that this is one of the few instances where hospice workers and chaplains have come together to help the terminally ill face the end with a spiritual focus.
Forget Dame Cicely, forget Florence Wald, forget even Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose trailblazing book "On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families" is credited with spurring the growth of the hospice movement -- and its faith-friendly components -- in this country.
Nope: Ground zero, saith the Times, is in San Francisco at the Zen Hospice, at least the spiritually revolutionary part.
One GetReligion reader -- who identified himself as a chaplain -- saw the journalistic question immediately, as they expressed in referring the article to our team:
Check out the article ... which I absolutely guarantee would never have been published had this doctor lived in Muncie, IN and been a Christian rather than the director of a Zen hospice. The doctor in question begins to think about suffering as part of life. . .gee, I wonder if any other Western traditions have ever considered that? Nothing from anybody Jewish, Christian, Muslim. . . not a peep from chaplains who are in most hospitals who are the professionals trained to help people make meaning (or acknowledge the lack thereof) in their suffering!
It's a valid point.
As with so many bright, shiny objects in the spiritual firmament -- think of any number of "hipster" clerics seeking to make ancient texts and their timeless message more "relevant" -- there always has been a precedent, going back to the earliest days of just about any faith. Chaplains and hospice workers have endeavored for years, decades even, to lighten the burdens of the suffering and their families, as we've seen. And those chaplains almost always approach things from a spiritual perspective, including arranging a wedding ceremony if needed or desired.
Or, as our very perceptive reader suggests:
But why ask chaplains or other palliative care doctors or volunteers at Catholic or Jewish hospice systems about their experience or motivations when you can make it seem like the cool Zen people in SF are doing something new? The absence of chaplaincy and religious thinking in this article -- as background, even -- is just amazing. They really don't know what they don't know.
I suppose it could be argued that if Miller really is attempting to "reinvent how we look at death and dying," it might be understandable to focus chiefly, if not solely, on his work. Yet as our reader points out, others have been -- and are -- doing the very same things that are being done at the Zen Hospice, save perhaps for the "flower ceremony" in which a deceased is adorned with petals after they pass.
That The New York Times felt it acceptable to present Miller's work as sui generis and not even mention anything similar suggests the paper's admitted lack of understanding about religion and people of faith extends far beyond the political realm.