Love, care and hospice work

Categories: Care.

Anyone working  in hospice and palliative care will understand that love manifests in many ways. Some take the form of overt displays of affection and commitment, such as a hastily planned wedding held in a hospice bedroom, and others, while less immediately apparent, are no less important.

I’ll write here about just two of these ways. These correspond to two of the main characteristics of love as identified by generations of philosophers, poets, song writers and people officiating at marriage ceremonies.

First, there is the inescapable fact that: ‘Love hurts.’ The joy, comfort and bliss of love find their dark mirror image in the desolation that is left after the death of a partner or loved one.

Maria Popova, the founder of Brain Pickings, interviewed Edie Windsor, who fought and eventually overturned the US Defence of Marriage Act after being unfairly charged inheritance tax on her late partners’ estate. Ms Popova asked a question that many people will have to address. She said: “My partner is older than I am, so the prospect of mortality, of eventual and inevitable grief, always haunts the back of my mind. How do you keep love alive after death?” Ms Windsor’s answer, as many others will understand, was: “I sometimes wish I knew how not to.”

Being in love implies the eventual loss of love, and an essential part of the work of hospice and palliative care professionals is to support families and spouses of people who have died in hospice care as they come to terms with being the lone survivor of a loving relationship.

A second feature of love, and the one that is often the theme of long winded speeches at wedding ceremonies, is the understanding that true love is unselfish.

In my time as editor of ehospice international, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a huge range of people working in hospice and palliative care. From nurses, doctors and social workers to spiritual counsellors, architects, and businesspeople, there has been a common drive among all of these individuals, a seemingly undeniable need to care for other people and to use whatever skills available to make their lives better.

I’ve seen that this vocation creates a cycle of caring: you identify with another human being who is in pain and needs your help, you form a connection with them and their family, which goes deeper as you accompany them in this most personal of journeys. That in turn affects you deeply, subtly molding your character so that you emerge from each encounter more open to caring for other people, other families.

It is this unselfish caring that so defines hospice and palliative care work, and care is inextricably linked to love. You can’t love if you don’t care and you can’t care if you don’t love.

Most hospice and palliative care workers I’ve met have been guided by a radical, outward-looking, unselfish love; an all-encompassing care for other people of the type that keeps Joan Marston bouncing around the world, making sure that no-one forgets the children or the parents for whom this child IS the world. It keeps Heather Richardson, Help the Hospices Clinical Director, on a two-hour phone call to a distressed family member in the middle of a hectic business day, and leads to Anne Merriman being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the monumental effect that her love has had on the lives of countless patients and those of the families who love them.

This is the kind of love that goes beyond the Hallmark romance of chocolates, roses and stylised hearts. It is the kind of love that lasts and the kind of love that, through incremental changes, holds the possibility to influence an exponential number of lives for the better

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