Hospice Ministry of Presence
“In hospice care, spirituality is one of the most important issues in a person’s life,” states Sr. Catherine Higgins, CSJ, LSW, Hospice Social Worker. “Hospice nurses (including the ones I’ve worked with so closely at Celtic) are excellent at symptom management and pain control. It is my belief that they manage this mainly for the person to be able to do their inner work.” A person is not able to address these issues if they are in pain, so hospice nurses make the way for servants like Sr. Catherine to go in and work “interiorly.”
Sr. Catherine knew she wanted to be a Sister since she was six years old and never wavered in her desire to enter religious life. She started out her career as a school principal before entering hospice. While working as a school principal, Sr. Catherine’s mom became terminally ill after suffering from a massive stroke. When her doctor gave Mom two weeks to two months to live and having no available hospice care, Sr. Catherine brought Mom to the convent to live with her and the other Sisters. They cared for her around the clock, but ultimately it was Mom who ministered to all of them. The most important thing Sr. Catherine learned from this experience was the ministry of PRESENCE. Though Mom couldn’t do much more than just “be there” with people as they were given the opportunity to provide the gift of mercy through feeding, bathing, and physically “pivoting” her, it was Mom who listened and consoled and was told profoundly deep and personal things that people felt absolution from after sharing.
It was through this experience that Sr. Catherine knew from deep inside that hospice care was her calling. Being one who was never good at “small talk,” Sr. Catherine is passionate about the privilege of being able to share in the profound experience of nurturing the spiritual aspects of the terminally ill. “Dying people don’t have the energy to play games,” shares Sr. Catherine. “They have no hidden agendas, and a sacred trust is gained almost immediately.”
One of Sr. Catherine’s favorite stories is one of visiting with a dying man who appeared to have absolutely no interest in talking with her. On her first visit, he sat in silent defiance on a small bench in a narrow hallway with his arms folded across his chest. Sr. Catherine fulfilled her social work tasks and left. After hearing from numerous nurses and even receiving a call from the patient’s wife that this man was wondering when she was coming back, Sr. Catherine paid a second visit. After about 10 minutes of similar silence, Sr. Catherine was able to break the ice by asking about a photo hanging in the hall which turned out to be this war veteran’s memory. The next week, and every week after that for several months, they continued to share stories and break through this man’s reason for anger. They discussed his anguish about being forgiven for the “killing” he did while serving in the war. They discussed the resentment towards God he felt in confused devotion to his father whose bitterness toward God infiltrated his entire family after the loss of a son to the influenza epidemic and the refusal by a priest to perform an individual funeral and burial due to circumstances beyond their control. This man was finally able to understand forgiveness when Sr. Catherine forgave him and shared the forgiveness of a loving God.
“The only way I could get to that was by showing up and being present,” comments Sr. Catherine. “I am called to listen, not preach, watch with and not look at the person. By entering into their pain and listening to the anguish of the dying person, we can show God’s infinite love and mercy. That is what I pray to be able to do.”