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A hospice chaplain shares what patients have taught him about living

Michael Costanzo sat in his motorized scooter in the parking lot of the Cleveland, Ohio nursing facility where he lives. “I’m still a young man and sharp, even with two terminal diseases. There’s no one to talk to in the nursing home. I’d probably give up if I couldn’t talk to Dennis,” said Mike, as he looks toward Dennis Zimmerman, his hospice chaplain.

Mike chats about his career in the Navy, his successes and failures and friendship with his girlfriend. Dennis listens. As a hospice chaplain, Dennis is part friend, part confidant and part spiritual guide.

Some of those Dennis counsels are religious, such as Mike who receives communion weekly, others are non-sectarian or firmly secular. Dennis is trained to bring comfort to patients by meeting them wherever they’re at in their journey.

“Patients facing the end-of-life tell me they want to be remembered,” said Dennis. “They want to know that we’re not just here today and gone tomorrow. That their story mattered.”

Sharing memories helps Mike weave his own thread into the tapestry of the world around him. Stories bring comfort by helping him resolve his past, deal with his present and build a bridge to whatever is next.

Dennis knocks and quietly enters the room of James Elmore, a patient with end-stage lung disease. James talks proudly about his career and shares his regrets about not spending more time with family. He talks about his nephew’s autobody skills and tells Dennis that he’s never ridden in a Porsche sports car.

“Death is frightening and often generates a sense of guilt. I often hear patients say, ‘I should have done this’ or ‘if I’d only done that,’” said Dennis. “My job as chaplain is helping them rediscover a sense of value in their lives and the importance of family, friends and their memories. And if a patient doesn’t have family, I let them know they have not been abandoned.”

Dennis often plays his guitar for patients, especially those who can’t communicate. “My two big hits with patients are, ‘You are My Sunshine’ and ‘Amazing Grace,’” he said. “Amazing Grace speaks to that deep spiritual trust that connects with patients. Through many dangerous toils and snares, I have already come, grace will lead me home.”

Role of the hospice chaplain

Pastoral care for family and fellow caregivers

Everyone approaches death differently. Anger, fear or depression can affect family and fellow caregivers alike. Hospice chaplains are trained to guide all through the emotional challenges that arise with a terminal illness and death.

Grief support

Bereavement doesn’t start with the death of a loved one. Anticipatory grief is the realization that the end may be near. Hospice chaplains help patients and their family through each stage of grief–before, during and after death.

Care is guided by the wishes of the patient and family

Hospice pastoral care is optional and can be started or stopped at any time. Hospice chaplains never promote a religion or seek to convert. They listen first to ensure they meet people wherever they are in life’s journey; regardless of religion, culture or family traditions. 

For more information about hospice care in Cleveland, visit our Cleveland location page or call (440) 899-7659.