This piece was originally published on the NHPCO blog.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to correspond with Kyle Terry, Director of Saint Francis Hospice in Tulsa. The hospice is part of the same health system as Saint Francis Hospital, where this week a gunman murdered four people, injured others, and then took his own life.
The staff at Saint Francis Hospice is providing grief support to their colleagues in the health system and to the broader community in the wake of this horrific act of violence. This is what hospice staff do, all too often—they quietly step in following a tragedy to help those who find themselves suddenly grieving.
Whether in Buffalo, Uvalde, Tulsa, or the countless other communities that have been impacted by senseless gun violence, hospice staff are unsung heroes who step up to provide expert support, to help people get through the initial phase of shock and grief, and to begin the long journey of individual and community healing. In this instance, the staff at Saint Francis Hospice is working in a particularly trying situation, as the shooting not only happened in their community, it happened a block away, in the same health system, to colleagues. It is hard to imagine how they are simultaneously managing their own shock, fear, and grief, and providing support to others in need. My heart goes out to them, and I let Mr. Terry know that NHPCO is here to provide any support that we can.
In my five years with NHPCO, I have shared my thoughts about a few mass shootings. Of course, there have been dozens and dozens of other shootings that I have not written about. Over those years, some things have remained consistent, and others have changed. What has remained consistent is that these tragedies continue to happen, with no end in sight. The political discourse around how to reduce gun violence remains at stalemate. And hospices continue to be resources for their communities in times of tragedy, over and over.
What has changed is that the COVID pandemic has shifted the discourse on grief in the wake of tragedy. It has become glaringly clear that our country does not have the right resources to support communities in grief, which opens an opportunity for change. NHPCO is leading the charge in calling for a National Strategy on Grief. A National Grief Strategy that shapes policy would help build capacity in communities and direct resources where needed, including for natural disasters, violent tragedies, and deaths from illness. It would help families impacted by the next pandemic, the next deadly tornado, the next shooting, and the next cancer death. It would help the unsung hospice heroes who step up in times of tragedy.
While we continue to advocate for national policy change, NHPCO has also begun an internal conversation about the role of our organization and the hospice community in the cycles violence. Hospice providers have the deepest understanding of the importance of a good death—how we support the dignity of a person experiencing the end of life and care for their loved ones. Our work is about the value of life, all the way through death. So when we see lives cut short by senseless violence, it affects us deeply. Perhaps we have a bigger role to play.
Gun violence is the manifestation of a complicated set of factors. As policymakers grapple with gun control measures, waiting periods, background checks, mental health resources, and more, what we can do is stand together as a hospice and palliative care community to demonstrate what an interdisciplinary approach to illness can do to heal.
There is one small thing you can do today, June 3. In Tulsa, Saint Francis is known as the Pink Palace, and they have asked people wear pink to show that good can overcome evil. So, let’s all wear pink and post pictures using the hashtag #SaintFrancisStrong.
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