When caring for persons who are living with a serious life-limiting illness such as cancer, we as pastors, chaplains and caregivers encounter the sacred as well as the scared. In these sacred moments of sharing care and compassion, faith outshines fear, hope wrestles with despair and joy replaces sorrow. The word “cancer” and all that goes along with it bring up several thoughts, feelings, stories and experiences that are different for each person, and yet if we listen “between the lines” a deep longing for peace, comfort and hope are often commonalities.
Hope means different things to different people. Hope is varied, multifaceted, ever-evolving and is nourished by our faith and beliefs. In my ministry as a hospice chaplain, I am often met with phrases such as: “I could never do what you do!” and “I don’t know how you do it!” On the surface, these comments may appear to originate out of anxiety, uncertainty, anticipatory grief and perhaps even fear. There may be some truth to that. However, I find these to be some of the most hope-filled inquiries that invite dialogue and an opportunity for the chaplain to provide a deep, abiding presence. If the chaplain walks alongside others on this journey, then they are not alone and there is hope that somehow God will be with them (and us). Often, it is helpful to remind people of faith that Jesus says that he will never leave us nor forsake us, and will be with us always – even during uncertainty.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about strength – a strength received through Christ that empowers. It is this same strength that empowers pastors, chaplains and caregivers to serve and provide compassionate care to others. It is an honor to journey with patients and their families when they are faced with the uncertainties of life-limiting illnesses. We cannot pretend that we have all the answers, but we can be companions, prayer partners and fellow sojourners as we provide care, explore faith and look for hope when faced with the impossible.
Hope is a vital aspect of our expression of faith in all stages of life. Throughout Scripture, we see numerous expressions of hope from the trials of Job to the Psalms, from the prophets to the disciples, from those seeking healing to those in the midst of grief. In chaplaincy and throughout the church, hope plays a crucial role and for those faced with serious illness. Faith and hope – even in small amounts – lead to significant outcomes. Hope sustains. Hope energizes. Hope brings peace. Hope changes, whether in its sense of timing or possibility.
When I explore sources of hope and coping with the patients and families I serve, I utilize what I call a “Quad A” strategy for communication: ask, acknowledge, affirm, accommodate. With each of these elements of communication, the goal is to follow the lead of the patient and family. Ask a question such as, “Are you able to share with me about what gives you a sense of hope?” That can open the door for dialogue and invites others to share their personal experience. Acknowledge the person, knowing it is extremely important for people to feel as though they are heard. Listening and acknowledging where patients and families are on their respective journeys helps to create a safe space for sharing. Affirm and meet people where they are. Don’t feel pressure to “fix” them or their situation, but rather affirm where they are, be engaged with them and allow them the space to be who they are. Accommodate and allow room for times of struggle, wrestling, fears and doubts. Be a compassionate, listening presence. When questions arise (such as: Why is this happening to me? Did I pray enough? Will I be healed? Where is my miracle?), don’t rush to find the perfect answer, but be authentically present and seek meaningful ways to explore these questions together.
Over the years I have found that this Quad A strategy for communication has led to some of the most enriching, faith-filled and hope-filled discussions I’ve experienced with patients and their families. I have seen the awesome power of allowing space for others to tell their stories. Storytelling through life review has the power to deeply impact the lives of all who participate in such sacred moments. It is no secret that storytelling is present throughout the biblical witness and regularly we point to stories that have meaning to our individual and collective sacred journeys. Sharing stories, even in the face of terminal illness, can be healing to the soul, allowing families to share their history with stories of pain, struggle, growth, lessons learned, victories, challenges and how they have overcome through their faith. Family histories are snapshots of the little-known facts of those who taught us the importance of faith and left a lasting impression that lives on with each memory that is shared.
When faced with illness, hope may look differently than it once did. In caring for others facing such difficulties and helping them to rely on the core elements of their faith, we provide opportunities for meaning-making by making space for hope in order to cope through experiences of illness and loss. Meaning can be found in the expression of one’s faith, recognizing the value of one’s life or having companionship along the journey to a peaceful life closure. In so doing, forming a legacy of faith plays a significant role in faith and hope. When we reflect on those we consider to be important figures in the history of the church and our faith, legacy takes on a new meaning. Perhaps one of the greatest legacies we see from the biblical witness is that of Abraham, but we also remember Joseph, Jacob, Ruth, Mary, the disciples and, of course, the legacy of Christ, the cornerstone of our faith. All these accounts of faith and hope in the face of adversity and uncertainty build upon a foundation that shows us how to be faithful and minister with care and compassion.
When I reflect on my journey and all the patients, families and their loved ones I have had the honor of journeying alongside, I can’t help but think of how blessed I am to be a broken vessel used to share the love of Christ. I choose faith and I believe in the power of hope. The strength to walk such an amazing and humbling journey comes from Christ who strengthens me.
C. Brandon Brewer is a teaching elder in the Presbytery of Baltimore. He currently serves as associate team director and chaplain at Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care of Maryland. He resides in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, Camille-Kay.