“We have created a world where, so often, death is neatly pushed aside. And those holy moments where life is receding and death is drawing near are kept deeply private in ways that sometimes leave us encountering them feeling isolated, alone, bewildered, afraid, full of anxiety.” Provost Aaron Kuecker offered these opening remarks at a recent conference held atTrinity Christian College, where conversations about end of life were front and center.
Focused on End of Life Care, the mid-April conference welcomed two keynote speakers from different fields, a series of panelists in chaplaincy, academics, and members of the general public.
Trinity’s departments of nursing, social work, philosophy, and theology presented afternoon sessions on palliative, patient, and family care; support for hospice professionals; and a philosophical look at the moment of death. The conference’s plenary session, focused on end of life sedation, heard the perspectives of Farr A. Curlin, the Josiah C. Trent professor of medical humanities and co-director of the Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School, and Gilbert Meilaender, senior research professor at Valparaiso University and the Ramsey Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.
Roger Nelson, pastor of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Ill., participated in the session “A Death in the Body: What Dies When a Person Dies?” along with panelists from Muslim and Roman Catholic faiths.
“In this line of work, you’re with people when they die. The most beautiful, powerful, human, graceful deaths are those where [people are] surrounded by others. I think it’s one of the richest gifts that the church has to offer people. Where we don’t die completely alone but are surrounded by this community that loves us, that knew us in life and therefore knows us in death,” Nelson said.
Betty Vander Laan, a CRC pastor who recently retired from hospital chaplaincy, served as moderator for a panel titled “Patients and Families in End of Life Care.”
“As a CRC chaplain, I felt very grounded in my own tradition and well versed in the language of faith that is very important for many patients,” Vander Laan said. “It was meaningful to share in chaplaincy conversations regarding the ways other chaplains do their work and how support is provided.”
A participant agreed that hearing from different perspectives was worthwhile, saying, “The evening lectures were both excellent: thoughtful Christian voices that helped us think about critical end of life choices.”
About 200 people attended, including hospice workers, volunteers, nurses, and a few doctors from local institutions as well as many Trinity students.
“End of life care is an important question not only for individuals and their families but also for hospitals and hospice care. All of us . . . should be concerned about how to best care for the dying,” said Mike Vander Weele, part of the faculty team behind the conference. He added that the group hopes to do an interdisciplinary conference like this every other year. “It's part of our desire to interact with the resources of Chicago's research universities in a way that is helpful to neighboring institutions as well as to our own students and faculty.”