House of Love
Can you imagine what life and death were like before there was hospice?
Hospice came from England to America in the 1970s. In 1983, Wings of Hope Hospice was formed in Allegan County. Ever since, Wings has been in the non-profit business of recruiting, training and organizing people to serve the dying and their families in loving ways. I have often referred to the Wings Home as a “house of love.” And in a larger sense, I think of the entire Wings of Hope family of staff, board members, volunteers and donors as a “house of love.” Together, we are a part of caring for patients and families who are experiencing one of the most difficult seasons of life.
There are a number of people who have experienced that love, including two people who were our guests at the Wings Home. John* said he had felt “manipulated” at the nursing facility he was living in. He felt like he was there to fulfill their needs, like he was just a name and a room number. We moved him to the Wings Home. A couple weeks later, he said to me after a lengthy heart to heart conversation, “I know I am loved here.” John knew we were there for him.
This conversation directly followed an encounter I had with Amber* – a young lady who ended up at the Wings Home after bariatric surgery. Amber felt rejected by people all her life because of her obesity.
Amber’s father had died at age 31. Amber’s grandmother thought Amber would die on her 32 birthday because she knew Amber was intent on outliving her dad. Amber held on and on the occasion of her 32nd birthday, a couple friends brought in a beautiful flower arrangement and 32 brightly colored balloons. A couple of our Wings Home volunteers joined in as we gathered around Amber’s bed and sang Happy Birthday. When we finished singing, the friend to my left whispered in my ear that we should not sing “How many more?” I held Amber’s hand and prayed, “Heavenly Father, thank you for all the love in this room, for your love for Amber and your love for each one of us.” She lived a few days beyond her 32nd birthday, accepted rather than rejected. Loved, rather than scorned.
At Wings of Hope, we meet a lot of people like John and Amber. Death is not easy, and for people who feel forgotten, it can be especially painful. Our medical staff does an outstanding job of reducing the physical pain of each patient, but there are some hurts to which no drug or treatment can bring relief. Like an infection needs an antibiotic, a neglected soul needs a healthy dose of care. Therefore, loving our patients is a foundational part of what we do in hospice care.
So, let’s think about love for a moment.
There are three kinds of love I see at Wings of Hope.
The first of the three kinds of love is romantic.
We’re talking about two people falling in luv. This kind of love is characterized by chemistry, roses and fireworks.
Romantic love is the crazy wonderful aspect of relationship that lifts your spirits to where you feel you’re floating on air. It is a wonderful thing to fall in luv in this way. Like Rod Stewart says in his song from the 1970s, I luv ya honey!
Now, I’ll be painfully obvious here and say that our volunteers and staff don’t love our patients this way. However, we do get to see this love in hospice care from time to time. Lovers must someday grow old even when the love doesn’t. We are often blessed to see these couples, lifetime lovers, together, one in the hospice bed and the other sitting beside as they come down the home stretch. It is moving to see one lean over the bed with a kiss for the other. I can only say that this is one of the encouraging parts of my job, to see this kind of love endure strong to the end.
The second of the three loves is a friendship kind of love.
Philadelphia is called “the city of brotherly love.” This brings to mind goodwill and respect for one another. You care for someone. It’s relatively easy to be gracious and forgive.
Friendship love is a co-worker, or a sibling, or even sometimes a patient saying, “I love you.” Sometimes we sign our letters, “With Love.” We have positive feelings for the other. We appreciate each other.
This is the kind of atmosphere Theresa and our leadership are doing such an extraordinary job of nurturing around here at Wings of Hope. The sense of mutual goodwill and respect we share with each other and with our patients makes what we do special. During a difficult period in life, our patients and their families get to experience friendship as they navigate the process of loss.
But there is a difference between saying “I luv ya’ honey” which is often a romantic, infatuated kind of love – and “I love you,” which reflects a gracious good-will which is subject to change if the positive energy fades, and “I will love you,” which indicates a proactive commitment to another no matter what.
This third kind of love is a steadfast and active love.
This kind of love is demonstrated by Stewart & Mary VanderVere. Mary is a current patient. Stewart agreed to let me tell of their love. No doubt Stewart and Mary have enjoyed the first two kinds of love throughout their 53 years of marriage. But our clinical staff adores Stewart because of his devotion and commitment to his wife Mary who has suffered with severe dementia for years. Stewart keeps Mary at home and, along with the Wings of Hope staff, is her caregiver. Day after day and year after year he speaks kindly to her, holds her hand and cares for her needs.
Our volunteer writer MaryAnn Devries wrote up a life story for Stewart, Mary and their family. MaryAnn used a quote from Sinclair Ferguson on the cover of their story: “Love is not maximum emotion; love is maximum commitment.”
You see, some understand love as something that just happens. You either have it for someone or you don’t. Love is.
But a greater kind of love does.¹ It is willing to serve, to sacrifice and to commit to the well-being of another no matter what. Rather than being in the relationship to get, this kind of love is in the relationship to give.
I see this committed, active kind of love over and over in our Wings of Hope activities. Our volunteers serve, not for a paycheck, but because love does. Our donors give generously because they understand love sometimes requires expense. And our paid staff goes above and beyond because we understand love acts sacrificially. We sometimes work more than our 40, and yes, we work some holidays.
Over the years, we’ve had a number of patients who have presented enormous, perplexing challenges to our paid staff and volunteers. Patients have had sores and odors that were overpowering. Maybe the patient was crabby, demanding and unappreciative. Sometimes we’ve been caught up in ugly family dynamics. There have been times I’ve been tempted to think, why don’t we just discharge this patient?
I’ve seen our staff step up time and time again, however, to commit to patients regardless of who they are and the challenges they present. Wings of Hope gives all kinds of people an opportunity to experience steadfast, active love.
What do any of us need more than this love? What do dying people need more than this love? Not mere sentiment or emotion, but a commitment to their well-being. We are there for them. We say, “We will love you.”²
Another patient confided in me after receiving the care of our team at the Wings Home for some time and then coming to his final days. He said, “For my entire life, I have never felt more loved than during my days here at the Wings Home.”
I talked earlier about the Wings of Hope organization being a “house of love.” Love is something we experience here partly because of the type of work we do. The hospice movement enlists and equips people to serve the dying. We care for people, and that is in itself a rewarding activity. I think the area Wings of Hope serves is a better place to live and die because of what we do in a steadfast and active friendship with our patients and their families. But let’s not forget that while love is often a by-product of what we do, and something we get to take part in, it is also the basis and foundation of what we do. If we ever stop doing hospice work with active and committed love, we’ll have missed an opportunity. People like John and Amber need us to be active and intentional about our love, kind of like the way Stewart loves Mary.
So, let’s continue being a house that does.
¹ This concept comes from Bob Goff’s New York Times bestseller Love Does, published by Nelson Books in 2012.
² Of course, there are times when we are forced to discharge a patient who does not fit federal policies for continued hospice enrollment. Sometimes we have to move a patient out of the Wings Home to a hospital or other facility where they can get the appropriate level of care.
Author: Greg Carson, Spiritual Care Coordinator, Wings of Hope Hospice