I was recently learned about Dr. Harvey Chochinov who is an inspiring Canadian doing pioneering work in palliative care.
It is truly exciting to discover these forerunners who have worked so actively and lived so generously, giving an example to new generations about the kind of humanizing care that is possible.
Dr. Chochinov is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba and Director of the Manitoba Palliative Care Research Unit, CancerCare Manitoba. He has been doing palliative care research since 1990 and has explored psychiatric dimensions of palliative medicine, such as depression, desire for death, will to live and dignity at the end of life. He has also pioneered “dignity therapy.”
According to this paper of his, “Dignity Therapy, a novel, brief psychotherapy, provides patients with life threatening and life limiting illnesses an opportunity to speak about things that matter most to them. These recorded conversations form the basis of a generativity document, which patients can bequeath to individuals of their choosing. Client Centred Care is a supportive psychotherapeutic approach, in which research nurse/therapists guide patients through discussions focusing on here and now issues.”
In this brief YouTube clip, Dr. Chochinov describes what he calls “The Patient Dignity Question” and the significant impact that this open-ended, personalist question can have for patients and those who care for them:
On October 15, which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, I reflect on how my parents helped me to share the experience of our family’s grief at the loss of my baby brother, Brandon Joseph Achtman, who died when he was 7 months old.
I was only two-and-a-half years old when Brandon died. But, year after year, I continued to learn more about my brother’s brief life, his death, and that he remains forever my little brother.
Even now, as an adult, I grow in my relationship with this brother of mine. The fact Brandon existed continues to affect, influence, and rouse me – in many ways as ongoingly as the fact of my other brother, Evan, with whom I grew up all along and who is still alive today.
Below are some pages from the Special Care Baby Book in which my mom and I wrote and drew throughout my childhood to remember and cherish baby Brandon.
The other day I had my first class called “Post-Holocaust Jewish Theologies and Selected Christian Responses.”
Among the readings with which we began the course, we were given this single page containing the following epitaph:
From the Psalms I learned to pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19)
From Irving Greenberg I have learned to add:
“May they be credible in the presence of the burning children.”
The rabbi teaching our class also introduced us to some pages of Zalmen Gradowski who gave an eyewitness account of the death camps. Gradowski perished in October 1944 and his manuscripts were found after the war, hidden underground near the crematoria at Auschwitz.
There is a short spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence titled, The Practice of the Presence of God in which the 80-year-old author exhorts his 64-year-old correspondent to live and die in the presence of God.
This letter says:
I pity you much. It will be of great importance if you can leave the care of your affairs to, and spend the remainder of your life only in worshipping God. He requires no great matters of us; a little remembrance of Him from time to time, a little adoration: sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favours He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company: the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of. It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church; we may make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less: He knows what we can do. Let us begin then; perhaps He expects but one generous resolution on our part. Have courage. We have but little time to live; you are near sixty-four, and I am almost eighty. Let us live and die with God: sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us, while we are with Him: and the greatest pleasures will be, without Him, a cruel punishment to us. May He be blessed for all. Amen. Use yourself then by degrees thus to worship Him, to beg His grace, to offer Him your heart from time to time, in the midst of your business, even every moment if you can. Do not always scrupulously confine yourself to certain rules, or particular forms of devotion; but act with a general confidence in God, with love and humility. You may assure – of my poor prayers, and that I am their servant, and yours particularly.
Around New Year’s 2015, my grandfather had been hospitalized and was in quite severe pain. I visited him in the hospital during the holidays but had left the city by the time his birthday came around a couple weeks later on January 17th. I just came across the following letter that I wrote to him, which ended up being my last birthday card to him. When I had visited him at the beginning of the month, he told me that the pain was so bad that he wished he could die. This was obviously difficult to hear and so, in writing to him, I felt greatly responsible to give him some encouragement.
This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers:
The other day, my friend Ada and I were discussing the discovery of Indigenous children’s undocumented remains outside of the former residential school in Kamloops.
Ada is passionate about the Arctic and through her studies, research, and work is involved in cooperating with Inuit in the north with sensitivity, respect, and mutuality.
I could tell the news had shaken her and so I asked whether she had ever been to a First Nations cemetery.
“Yes, twice,” she said.
It was 2018 and Ada had just completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria. As a member of the Catholic Students’ Association, she joined four other students, led by university chaplain, former Anglican-turned-Catholic priest, Fr. Dean Henderson, on a cultural mission exchange to a First Nations reserve in British Columbia.