Many people take a deep look at themselves while in hospice, longing to know if their lives were meaningful. They often are full of questions and emotions that need to be expressed in order to have a peaceful ending. Through spiritual care, they can find understanding and comfort in their journeys.
Called to a life of faith as a teen, Lawrence “Larry” Merritt devoted his life’s work to serving the community in ministry and hospice. For the past 21 years, Merritt has served with our Suncoast Hospice as a spiritual care coordinator (formerly called a chaplain) on a home team and most recently at the south Pinellas care center.
In this Q&A, Merritt discusses his path to service; his role helping patients achieve reconciliation and supporting families; and the lessons from fellow staff and those in his care that have changed his outlook on life.
1. What’s your ministry background?
My folks became Christians and when we started church in my early teens I liked it. I fit in and did well in the youth groups. At annual camp we had a service that challenged us to become specialized. One night, my buddy decided to go in the Air Force and I decided to go to Bible college. What influenced me were my home church, my dad and the people who taught camp, many of whom were missionaries. I served in the ministry for more than 30 years in churches in six states. I’ve bounced around and had a good life.
2. What drew you to the hospice field?
One of the first Suncoast Hospice chaplains and I went to college together and had a mutual friend who talked about a job opening. I thought it sounded pretty good and I could do it. I interviewed for the job but didn’t get it because I didn’t have CPE (clinical pastoral education) credits. I moved on and worked with a new congregation in Hollywood, FL and commuted to a West Palm Beach hospice where I took a yearlong CPE course. A year later, there was an opening on a Suncoast Hospice home team and I was hired.
Until this past September I had worked for that same home team. I loved it from the time I started. I never thought I’d be a chaplain and didn’t know much about hospice. I took all the hospice volunteer training and bereavement courses to learn all I could. Then I reached a point in my life in which I needed to cut back so now I work half time at the care center.
3. What’s it like to work in hospice?
Most of the time in the ministry I was a lone ranger. When I came to Suncoast Hospice one of the things I really liked was being part of a team. The other thing I liked was the acceptance of not trying to change anybody.
Our hospice interdisciplinary teams work with the whole person. If we don’t deal with the spiritual part we haven’t really dealt with the person. We can help improve the quality of our patients’ last days, weeks or months, and that’s a good thing. We get to meet some special people and develop good relationships with them. When hospice comes in, we’re not trying to change or sell you anything, we’re here to do what you want and need. We say our patients are in charge.
4. What are your credentials?
I was ordained by my home church. I have a Bible college B.A. and a master’s of ministry.
5. How do you help your care center patients deal with their spiritual concerns?
I visit every patient we have every day that I work. At the end of life, everybody wants to feel like their lives were worthwhile and not wasted. Some feel like they never did anything. One of the best things our spiritual care coordinators can do is to listen to our patients tell their stories and affirm them. We must provide active, supportive listening and help them see the value, importance and satisfaction of their lives.
My job is helping our patients see the value of their lives and come to terms with it. If they can reconcile the most important things in their lives, like their relationships with friends and family, their past, their hopes and dreams; and their ideas of the divine, then they can be healed. One woman I knew once likened me to a travel agent, someone who gets you ready for the trip. I’m always amazed at how so many people can handle it and hope I can do that myself.
6. How do you work with people of different or no faith?
We’re all-inclusive in our care. We don’t try to convert or change anybody’s spiritual position. We work within the framework of people’s belief systems. We try to build bridges between their faith communities and will make arrangements for priests or others to come in if they ask for that. Whatever they need we try to find it, but most of the time we can minister to them.
At the end of life, most people start thinking about spiritual things and things they might not have thought were important. Many of my patients are Christian in their thinking, but may not be active in churches. We can help them get reconciled and ready for the journey, the transition.
7. How do you support families?
The whole family is our client. Usually our team is helping the family deal with what’s going on and our nurses tell them what to expect physically. We try to work with them within their beliefs and do what’s best for the patient. We’ve also done some memorial services for families. I try to involve as many family members and friends as possible to share what they remember about their loved ones and the impact they had.
8. In what ways can other hospice team members provide spiritual support?
I think every hospice staff member does spiritual support. There are a lot of things our staff does to support patients if they’re comfortable with it, such as reading scripture; praying; singing hymns; and referring patients to the services of our spiritual care coordinators. The biggest things anyone can do are to listen and care about our patients. Everybody wants to be listened to and it’s a great service at the bedside. Oftentimes they want to talk about spiritual issues.
9. Who’s one of your most memorable patients?
I remember one lady who told me she was called to ministry when she was young, but she got kicked out because of extracurricular activities and felt like she had failed God. She became a school teacher and social worker helping her community. Overtime we re-framed that there were lots of ways she had helped people and did serve God. When she was near dying, she said she felt like she’d come to a place of reconciliation.
10. What lessons have you learned in your work?
I’ve learned a lot of things; the patients have taught me more than anything else. I’ve learned if you want to do something do it now while you can. I’ve learned a lot about how to deal with dying. Thinking back to my orientation years ago, a social worker said one thing that stood out, “Your job is to go out there and love those people. You must accept everybody where they are, no matter old, rich, poor, educated or color.”
Could you or a loved one use some support with an advanced illness? Call us to learn more about services at 727-467-7423 or visit us online. We’re here to help.