At the End of Life, the Artist is Necessary

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”

Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?

One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’

The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:

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Caring for the Dying Without Props

Several years ago, I heard the story Bosco Gutierrez Cortina, a Mexican architect who was held hostage by kidnappers attempting to extort a ransom from his family. What struck me most about his story is how he devised a disciplined schedule for himself while is solitary confinement and he resolved to make good use of his time even while being held captive. Stripped of all of his ordinary resources, attachments, and supports, he was forced to discover what he actually had within inside himself. Without books, work, family, community, means of communication, and so much more, Bosco discovered what was a matter of his inner reserves versus what he had not yet deeply interiorized and made his own.

Sometimes I think about this and wonder just how well I know my faith, my family, and my friends. If I lost the ability to worship in community and to communicate with those I love, what would I have interiorly that would sustain me amid such deprival?

These thoughts also bring to mind an anecdote shared by Cicely Saunders, the founder of modern hospice and palliative care. In her biography, Shirley du Boulay writes, “When Cecily offered to read to David Tasma [the man who became the ‘founding patient’ of St. Christopher’s Hospice], thinking to comfort him, he said, ‘No — no reading. I only want what is in your mind and in your heart.’ She never forgot that simple reaction; and mind and heart became twin poles of St. Christopher’s philosophy.”

What do we have inside ourselves with which to comfort the dying? Without props, without activities, without prestige, who do we have to give when someone says, “I only want what is in your mind and in your heart”?

A Death Chat Over Wine and Cheese

Years ago, one cold December night, I approached St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London. Through the window, I could see several people getting seated around a table. I went to the main entrance and informed the receptionist that I was here for the Death Chat, and she pointed me toward the room that I had seen through the window.

Those who were there greeted me warmly. A man named Anthony was speaking and it was the opposite of small talk. After a few others had arrived, Kostas, a principal social worker in Social Work, Bereavement, and Welfare, facilitated the introductions.

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