Remember the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz? Dorothy is running away from home when she gets caught up in a tornado that literally picks her up, house and all, and sends her on a fanciful journey – far away from home. Ironically, throughout her journey, all she wants is to get back home. As I think about Dorothy clicking her heels and repeating “There’s no place like home” over and over, determined to get home, it reminds me of the simple comfort of wherever we call home; it is familiar and safe, it is the place we ultimately belong.
Life is hard on some level, for all of us, and we often spend our whole lives looking for that familiar, safe feeling of home. No matter what home looks like or how much, like Dorothy, we struggle against it at times, there is, truly, no place like home.
This is ideally what hospice is all about, after all, allowing people to spend their last days in the comfort of their own home, surrounded by family and friends. But home, and the idea of home, can look very different for each of us. And so as hospice chaplain I must meet my patients where they are as I enter their sacred space they call home.
I recently visited a patient who had come home from the hospital to die. Following my GPS, I arrived at a dilapidated trailer. After double checking the address, my first thought was, “Does anybody even live here?” But as I spoke with the patient and family this concept of no place like home, began to resonate deeply with me. The biggest problem they were having was the patient kept getting out of the hospital bed that hospice provided, in the middle of the night, and crawling on hands and knees back to his own bed. It all of the sudden hit me; no matter what I think about it, this is his home. This is his place of safety, familiarity, and refuge. This is where he belongs. If given a choice on how to die, most people will say: in their sleep, in their own bed. That is all this man needed to die in peace.
I have another patient who is also in the comfort of his own home surrounded by family and friends but is increasingly unsettled as I visit. This patient is not unsettled with being home, but with going home – code word for the afterlife. What is that going to look like? How will he get there? This patient has lived a life largely void of God, but now he wants to know more. He needs the peace of knowing what his final destination will look like when he leaves this world.
Two very different snapshots of what it means to “go home.” People in hospice are at this special place on their journey through life – the end of life. Of course they have all lived different lives and are at different places in their trek towards acceptance – some are depressed, some are angry, some are scared, some are trying to make amends – still searching for the peace they need, while others are surrendered and ready. But all want to be home while they await their time to finally go home, whatever that looks like for them.
How can we know what going home looks like? Most religions believe in life after death. Christians believe in a peaceful heaven with God for eternity. Islam belief is that all who die will stay in their grave until judgement day, where more good deed than bad in their earthly life will earn them a place in paradise. Other religions believe in life cycles or reincarnation. Even atheist, in their unbelief, belief the afterlife is possible.
I am not sure we can know exactly what it will look like until we get there, but I trust the divine is at work as my patients find their peace and surrender to the process of dying. Even in the uncertainty, our belief or religious understanding of our final destination might just be the easy part; finding the way home is often more of a challenge.
Just like Dorothy’s journey to OZ, people at the end of life must confront their own demons and detours on their way home. As I enter into these very personal and private spaces of my hospice patients it becomes very apparent it is not about finding comfort in this life so much as it is about finding the peace and surrender they need to move on to the next.
It is often some unfinished business that causes unrest and agitation and holds them back from the release they so desperately need. This looks very different for every person. It might be forgiveness that needs to be offered or received, or a confession that needs to be made, maybe there is grief that needs to be expressed, or emotional wounds that need to be healed; whatever is stealing their peace needs to come out and be dealt with. It is often the simple expression of what they are feeling that brings the freedom they need to pass peacefully from this life to the next. This is the way home.
I have a third patient who likes to talk theology with me. He is home and ready to go home. He has lived a good life, he is surrounded by people who love him, he knows his “heavenly Father” and longs for his eternal home in heaven, yet, his most pressing theological question is, “why am I still here?” While he is at peace with his death and dying, the timing leaves him frustrated and weary. He is ready. He says several times in each visit, “I just want to go home.” As I left him today he said, “You can come back anytime to visit, but hopefully I won’t be here.”
Under any other circumstances I might feel a certain kind of way, but working with end-of-life patients, the perspective is different, and we celebrate and long for different things. I know the day will come when my beloved theological buddy is no longer sitting in his chair, contemplating impossible theological concepts, and waiting for God to call it a day. On that day I will smile because I will know, his journey is over, and he is finally home. Because there really is, no place like home.