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[The following remarks were delivered at the conference “Identity and Conflict in History, Culture, and Society” of the International Psychohistorical Association, May 20, 2021]

Faith as a Resource When Facing Death

Charles Gourgey, Ph.D.

I will never forget the very first patient I met on my first day as Music Therapist at Cabrini Hospice. He was sitting in his wheelchair, talking to me about his life. He seemed perfectly calm. He told me: “God has brought me this far, and God will carry me the rest of the way.” This he said knowing his life was coming to an end. I wanted to understand where that calmness came from.

This conference brings to the fore the theme of trauma and the deep ways it can affect us. An inevitable invitation to trauma comes to all of us when we can no longer avoid the reality of our death. I would like to relate what I learned from four people I met in my work as a hospice music therapist: one who did not manage trauma successfully, and three who did.

No one wanted to be in the room with my first client, the hospice patient, and his wife. They picked at each other constantly, undermining each other in ways only available to those who have been married for decades. As far as he was concerned, she could do nothing right. Meanwhile she berated him constantly and cut off all his attempts to express his feelings. In his rare moments of relaxation, when he finally gave in to his fears and started to cry, she would just tell him to stop acting like a baby.

He was, understandably, focused entirely on himself. He could be quite obsessive. Every day he’d go into a panic an hour before his IV was due to run out. Would the nurse remember to replace it? She had always been on time, but this is today, one never knows, she might forget. He insisted that I remind her. One night he had me spend an hour looking for his store of ostomy pouches, even though he didn’t need a new one and they were always in supply. But he had to know where these particular ones were, and right now. He could not trust that they were always available. When I did locate his stash, it didn’t stop him griping about the nurses.

He had no faith to support him. His wife brought in a rabbi for pastoral visits, but he resisted her attention. He seemed more comfortable in his unsuccessful efforts to control things himself, even though those very efforts were making him miserable. There was little I could do for him beyond just listening patiently to his demands.

(Parenthetically, just a few doors down from his room was a Latina woman many years this man’s junior, also dying. She always greeted me with a smile. When I remarked on her good spirits, she said, “La fé es número uno” “Faith is number one.”)

The second patient, Lillian, had been a nurse when she was healthy. Now she was dying of a rare form of cancer whose name I could not possibly pronounce. “I never did anything the usual way,” she would tell me.

When I first met Lillian I thought she was a volunteer. She could still walk, and would visit the other patients, asking what she could do for them. One patient she visited was a very tiny, frail woman, 104 years old, covered in thick blankets. Her feet bothered her; they were always cold. In her thick European accent, Lillian asked her touchingly, “How are your feet today? Is there anything I can do for your feet?” Then she found a little blanket to cover the woman’s feet.

Several weeks later it was Lillian’s turn to be the one always in bed, receiving the ministries of others. She knew she was dying now. She raised her hands toward the air in a gesture of embrace. She kept saying how happy she was, how grateful for her life. This was not a time to grieve; it was a moment of awesome joy. Lillian seemed grasped by a reality beyond her suffering. It seemed she could look right through her surroundings to something beyond. Just before she died she looked towards me, but seemed to be seeing through me to something behind my head that I could not see myself. She kept repeating that she saw the face of an angel.

My third patient was Muriel, also with terminal cancer. The very first time I met her I was taken aback. Pounding her chair’s siderails she exclaimed: “I am so grateful to be here in this hospital sitting in this wheelchair,” she informed me in her gruff and very assured voice. “And do you want to know why? Because right here in this chair is where God is.”

It was not that she didn’t suffer. Muriel was prone to fits of vomiting, and she always had a plastic basin by her side. “What’s a little thing like vomiting,” she would tell me, “when you feel God present with you?”

Muriel drew much strength and comfort from her Gospel hymns. She seemed to know every hymn ever written, and she challenged me to find her favorite: a song thanking Jesus for having brought her “a mighty long way.” I didn’t know it, but I did find it Muriel gave me no choice and once I did, we sang it every day.

I wanted to know how Muriel got her deep faith. She could not tell me, but her daughter did. She told me Muriel’s mother instructed her in a very practical faith. When Muriel was a child they had a neighbor, Miss Jane, who was old and frail and unable to feed herself. Muriel’s mother prepared meals for Miss Jane and sent Muriel to feed her. Thus began the pattern of Muriel’s life. When she grew up she cooked Thanksgiving turkeys for the homeless people in a troubled neighborhood, and she delivered the meals herself. And when immigrants from her native Trinidad arrived and had no place to stay, she would take them in for as long as they needed.

Muriel’s final hours were among the most peaceful I have witnessed in two decades of hospice work. She showed no signs of distress, and none of the agony that can afflict people with end stage pancreatic cancer. It was as though God, who was always present with her, had rocked her to sleep.

I will conclude with a patient who was not traditionally religious, but seemed to have developed a similar faith. Joanna, only 30 years old, was dying of kidney cancer. She no longer spoke but she could still communicate. I would ask her if she enjoyed the music I played for her, and she’d give me a slight nod of her head and a barely perceptible movement of her lips. When in her presence I felt a very strange, deep and unusual sense of peace.

Her mother was sitting next to me. I turned to Joanna’s mother and said, “There is a lot of love in this woman.” This seemed to startle her. She asked me, “How did you know?” And then she told me about Joanna.

Joanna, she said, was born with a loving heart. She gave blood frequently, until she came down with diabetes and had to stop. She volunteered in nursing homes. She made sandwiches and, in spite of her father’s concerns for her safety, distributed them to homeless people in an unattractive neighborhood. Her only regret was running out of sandwiches and wishing she had made some more.

I held the railing of Joanna’s bed and looked at her. Once again I felt in her a peacefulness so profound that it both shook me and filled me with calmness. Within minutes, Joanna died.

These are just a few of many examples I have seen in hospice, of people whose faith developed from the loving lives they lived. What they all had in common was not any particular creed or form of religious expression, but the kind of love that religion, when at its best and uncorrupted, supports and teaches us to practice. Perhaps it is not even faith but actually love that saves us when we are facing death. Paul says in First Corinthians: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

I do not see faith as tied to any one particular religion, or even to any established religion at all. Rather, it is an awareness of transcendence that comes from the practice of what I call non-self-interested love. Great religious figures like Jesus and the Buddha have taught this love, but it is available to all who devote themselves to pursuing it. And it may well be our greatest resource in facing death.

The love these women shared with others came back to support them when they were frail and sick and dying. It became the resource they needed to guide them safely home. The deepest faith comes not from belief in doctrines but from a life lived in love and outreach to others. That is the most valuable lesson I have learned from my years as a hospice professional.