Helping the dying find meaning in their lives, be reconciled with loved ones if warranted and encounter reassurance has been the ministry of Notre Dame Sister Laurie Divocky for more than a decade. After serving as teacher, principal and pastoral associate, the latest chapter in Sister Laurie’s ministry brought her to Hospice of the Western Reserve in Ashtabula where she works as a spiritual care coordinator. The role of spiritual care coordinator is to “lovingly walk with people when they’re dying. We don’t want people to be in pain, suffering, have unresolved issues or worries, so they can die in peace. The religious piece gives a direction, hope and strength,” explained Sister Laurie.
Sister Laurie’s association with Hospice began during her initial stages as pastoral associate at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Ashtabula (now one of three sites of Our Lady of Peace Parish). Because much of her ministry entailed comforting the sick and dying, Sister Laurie enrolled in the Hospice training program in 2000. For the next eight years, she volunteered to assist Hospice patients in Ashtabula while maintaining her full-time ministry at Mt. Carmel. In 2008, a position as a spiritual care coordinator (one of four) opened on the Hospice team. “By then I had been at Mt. Carmel 10 years and was discerning the next step,” explained Sister Laurie. Working with Hospice seemed a natural progression. It also meshed with Sister Laurie’s background.
As a child, she would play games with and aid in the physical care of a neighbor who had dementia. When she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame after high school graduation, Laurie Divocky had also been accepted into nursing school. Instead, her community guided her into teaching, which she loved but said, “almost every [teaching] assignment was near a hospital. So I was always visiting the sick.”
In her current role as part of the Hospice team, Sister Laurie ministers to both patients and their caregivers. “The goal is help people come to an inner peace,” she explained. She visits patients monthly, weekly or more often if circumstances and desires dictate. “The spiritual is so foundational to how you work through suffering,” she said.
On average, Sister Laurie makes four stops each day in various parts of Ashtabula County. “Before I go through any door, I pray that I can bring a blessing to that home,” she said. The coordinator then initiates conversations based on the individual’s surroundings. “People’s values are on the walls or in the bookcases.” Identifying needs and forming compassionate bonds are central to the Hospice mission.
As a spiritual care coordinator, “you’re entering into a relationship with a person and God’s presence in that person’s life,” Sister Laurie said. Partnering with the patient entails active listening. “It’s truly trying to reflect into their spirit and see what’s inside. All the answers are within the person. I just help facilitate it,” she continued. Tools employed in the process include imagery, music, conversation, Scripture and prayer according to the patient’s wishes and abilities.
Perhaps because of her childhood experience, Sister Laurie is especially touched by dementia patients. “Inside, their spirit is still the same. Sometimes it’s just looking into their eyes and finding God’s spirit in there,” she noted. Sister Laurie finds pictures and hymns to be especially effective with this population. “Music is a wonderful way to get into the spirit when words cannot,” she explained.
Another aspect of generating inner tranquility is helping dying patients leave a legacy when desired. Sister Laurie assisted one man in recording a CD of songs, another woman in preparing a videotape of her life stories and a young mother in writing a book detailing her childhood and values.
Meeting the needs of her patients requires meeting family needs as well. “The patient is going to have a happy death depending on what happens around him. That’s why it’s important to help the family with their grief and their fears,” she explained. As a former caregiver, Sister Laurie understands the toll that full-time care can exact on a loved one. “Sometimes I’ll stay with the patient for an hour, so the caregiver can have a break,” she said.
Sister Laurie’s ministry brings her into contact with persons of all religious denominations as well as the unchurched. “It’s very rewarding to see people who are deeply committed to God, but that has nothing to do with what I bring. It’s what the patient brings. For those who don’t have a religious connection, I try to help them recognize the meaning in their life. For many women, their family is their strength,” she said.
Giving of herself through Hospice ministry is fulfilling on many levels, said Sister Laurie. “Outside of [religious] community and Eucharist you’re with people in a very sacred place,” she said. One of the privileges of that connection is having people share their most innermost thoughts or issues that burden them. Learning from others is also rewarding. “Every patient teaches you something,” said Sister Laurie. Through the course of her Hospice experience, she has discovered the steadfast commitment of patients’ friends and family, the strength of the human spirit, the prevalence of unresolved issues and concerns along with society’s collective fears. “Most people aren’t afraid to die. They’re afraid of the process,” she noted.
Being present on such an emotional level, however, can be draining. “When you’re compassionate, it’s exhausting because you’re suffering with the patient,” noted Sister Laurie. To recharge and maintain her spiritual strength, Sister Laurie relies on prayer, exercise and adequate rest. “I don’t think I could do this without getting up very early and giving an hour to prayer,” she said. Activities such as attending theater performances and bike riding in the summer also create solace. Another comfort is Jesus’ example of healing others.
Now in her fifth year as a spiritual care coordinator, Sister Laurie said the experience has brought her more peace and contentment. “I’m less anxious about the future, less bothered by the little things that happen.” Noting that we all relinquish material possessions at death, Sister Laurie said it’s resolving personal matters that brings peace. “At the end all that’s left is your spirit.”