Spiritual Companionship at the Time of Death

The ministry of spiritual companionship can be so rewarding and evokes a sense of the reciprocity inherent in giving. Graduating from Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program gave me the needed credentials to serve as a hospice chaplain with Louisiana Hospice & Palliative Care in Opelousas, LA. (Chaplain credentialing requirements vary among agencies.) I share the following precious memories in honor of hospice workers everywhere and the brave men and women whom we have had the grace to companion.

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I was at her bedside when she died, now little more than a heap of bones being carried by a flimsy sack of flesh. This fragile vessel belied the indomitable spirit hidden within. Born into the Cajun culture of south Louisiana, she had labored as hard as any field hand, prepared and stored meat and homegrown vegetables, regularly cooked large meals for her biological family and whatever strays that happened to show up, made hard choices, dished out unwelcomed discipline, and loved without ceasing. She was fierce in her determination.

An antiquated portrait of her childhood sweetheart and husband of more than 60 years hung prominently on the wall, a reminder of his cheery countenance now gone for some 20 years past. A small picture of the two of them in a swing in the yard was placed less conspicuously on a table by her bed. They were smiling together in shared resilience, a trait to be tested when her oldest son exited the world close behind her lifelong beau. Her other son remained as her companion, a child who came as a surprise twenty years after her first. Her life was also enriched by an attentive progeny of grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren who offered comfort and support.

For more than a year, I had been attending this diminutive and substantial lady. When our visits first began, she had seen over a hundred years of life, and for the last several of those years, had not been able to walk. She remained bed-bound and alone in her room in the nursing home much of the time, hard of hearing and mostly blind. I was her hospice chaplain, but she didn’t really understand that. To her, I was just another visitor, whom she didn’t remember from one encounter to the next.

She also didn’t know that she felt like home to me, reminiscent of my own Cajun grandparents, now many years deceased. She and they were descendants of a people who emigrated from France to Nova Scotia, only to be exiled from Canada to settle on the fertile ground of rural Louisiana. There was no honor given to diversity in that era, now 80 years prior; the Cajuns were viewed as ignorant and less-than. My Maw and Pa reared my father in a Cajun French-speaking home and sent him off to a school where he was punished for communicating in that language. At its worst, the educational system of that time was a place where native speech, other than English, was beaten out of students. My father didn’t teach me to speak his indigenous tongue for that very reason; yet growing up in the culture, I naturally picked up many colloquialisms. When spending time with the courageous woman in hospice, I was warmly reminded of this culture.

One of my visits with her is stored away as a priceless jewel in the treasure chest of my heart. When I entered her dark room on that day, she was listening to Cajun music on her CD player, a genre fondly called “chank-a chank” by many native Acadians.

When the music ended, I asked if I could pray with her, and she consented. She was Catholic, so we prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” and the “Hail Mary” together, and I played several hymns for her, including “Jesus, Hold My Hand” by George Jones.

She said, “That’s good. That’s very good,” and, “Oh yie, that’s beautiful.”

I responded, “I’m so glad you like it.”

She emphasized, “I love it!”

Then she said, “Look, my finger.”

She was bundled up from head to toe, except for one gaunt finger sticking out of the covers. She was moving it as an invitation for me to hold her hand, so I did.

She said, “It’s warm,” and we sat together experiencing the tenderness of simple, shared humanity. No tangible gift was given, yet I felt flushed inside, the soothing nourishment of gratitude and grace — all by an invitation.

Even though I was holding her hand, she would intermittently cry out in her Cajun vernacular, as if in pain, “Oh ya, yie!” (The ie in yie is pronounced like the ie in lie.)

I asked if she was hurting, and she said, “No.”

This was a behavior, familiar to the hospice and nursing home staff members, that she repeated intermittently every day. I decided to respond to her exclamation in a way that I hoped would communicate validation, that I saw her and heard her.

So, when she said it again, I repeated back, in as close a manner as I could imitate it, “Oh ya, yie!”

She paused, curious, then exclaimed, “Oh ya, yie” again, and I mirrored her.

This time, she changed it up, and it became a game. She would say, “Oh ya yie,” and I would repeat it back. She started varying how many times she said, “Ya yie,” and the intensity of the words. It made her laugh. It made me laugh, too, and was fun. There were no hospice chaplain and hospice patient. We were just two people enjoying one another.

When I told her it was time for me to go, she said, “I love you. Don’t make it too long.”

When it was apparent that the time was near for her departure, her family of origin and we, those deemed kin by grace and designated as helpers, gathered around her.  The love in the room was palpable as we sang her to sleep with the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I will never forget you, my people. I have carved you on the palm of my hand. I will never forget you. I will not leave you orphaned. I will never forget my own.” The serenade beckoned our grief to spill over in tears of sorrow and gratitude, a rite of passage and unity to honor this indomitable spirit I had been graced to know.

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Patricia Dubois
Patricia Dubois
3 months ago

Having been a hospice chaplain I was with the two of you in heart and soul thank you for being there with and for her! God bless your ministry.

Andrea "Ani" Vidrine
3 months ago

Thank you so much, Patricia! Blessings and gratitude, Ani

Lisa Groen
Lisa Groen
3 months ago

What a beautiful story, Andrea. Thank you for sharing her spirit with us, and for accompanying her with so much care.

Andrea "Ani" Vidrine
3 months ago
Reply to  Lisa Groen

Thank you so much, Lisa! Blessings and gratitude, Ani

Nancy Bellamy
3 months ago

What joy in the journey I gathered in being with you in this space. It brought memories from my own experiences. What a most precious and holy time. Thank you for sharing and walking with this soul.

Andrea "Ani" Vidrine
3 months ago
Reply to  Nancy Bellamy

Love you, Nancy!

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