"This conference speaks to a universal need because everyone, at one time or another, encounters loss-whether it be the loss of a job, a lapse of health or the loss of someone dear to them," said David English, president & CEO of Hospice & Palliative Care of Metropolitan Washington, one of the conference's sponsors. In fact, interest in spiritual issues is so strong that 1,300 members of the clergy, medical professionals and the public attended the conference (an additional 500 had to be turned away).
Other sponsors included Americans for Better Care of the Dying, DC Partnership to Improve End-of-Life Care, Hospices of Northern Virginia and Suburban Maryland, InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, Partnership for Caring, SOLACE, and the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing.
Many nationally known speakers shared their insights about how to cope with the challenges that life brings and turn feelings of loss, suffering and isolation into a meaningful journey of personal growth. Many echoed the same feelings as Judy Mann, the morning session's moderator. "I consider myself to be a spiritual person-not a particularly religious person," said Mann, a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. Yet during her own family crisis, she says, "I have seen the benefit from the grace and wisdom of clergy."
What makes it difficult to work through spiritual issues is that many people do not want to confront their feelings about death, which results in emotional confusion and suffering when loss does occur. "We prepare ourselves against every conceivable loss, except emotional loss," said The Very Reverend Nathan D. Baxter, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral. "Our relationship with God is one of the most important ways of dealing with profound loss."
This relationship is the foundation upon which inner peace is achieved, even before a terminal illness is diagnosed. "Death is the greatest teacher," said keynote speaker Bernie Siegel, MD. "But few of us choose to attend its classes to learn how to live." A first step towards achieving inner peace, Siegel said, is to realize that "while you can't control all things in life, you can take control over your life and mind." By asking the question, "How will you introduce yourself to God?" people can discover their priorities and begin on the road to spiritual wellness. Tantamount to this is being honest, not only with oneself but also with others. "If you are experiencing loss, don't hide your pain," counseled Siegel.
The conference highlighted the insights gained from two expert panel sessions. With WJLA/ABC news anchor Maureen Bunyan and author Kathleen Brehony as moderators, the first panel discussed ways in which people can deal with their grief. For some, like panelist Beth Nielsen Chapman, artistic work provides the best outlet to describe a sense of loss. "My music allowed me to be able to express my deepest emotions," said Chapman, a successful musician and songwriter whose latest album, Sand and Water, was inspired by the death of her husband.
For others, like The Reverend Norman Stanhope, acknowledging a person's loss and talking about death provide tremendous comfort to those who are grieving. When his own wife and daughter died, "no one would talk to me," said Stanhope. "Even chaplains don't talk about these issues." His advice to the participants is to "hear the words that aren't spoken" to help someone with their grief.
This advice extends beyond families and friends to include medical professionals as well. "Doctors must understand that meaning and purpose are important to those who are dying," said Christina Puchalski, MD, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health at George Washington University. In recognizing the importance of spiritual wellness in medical care, Puchalski said that 80 out of 120 medical schools today are incorporating spirituality training into their curriculums.
But how can people grow spiritually during a difficult time? For some, like Judy Mann and Wanda James, a health educator at the Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington, DC, the ability to provide support and comfort to others is based on the development of inner strength from previous losses. For others, like radio talk show host Diane Rehm, loss is not always related to death, but stem from significant health problems that affect a person's life.
Especially when dealing with terminal illness, communication is a key factor to achieving inner peace. "Go to the clergy, medical professionals and organizations and ask for help," said Karen Kaplan, president and CEO of Partnership for Caring and program director for Last Acts. The quest for spirituality is so strong, said Kaplan, that a Gallup poll has shown that spiritual peace is one of the most important aspects of end of life care.
Hope is an equally important factor when dealing with terminally ill people. Kathy Kalina, a hospice nurse and author of Midwife For Souls: Spiritual Care of the Dying, told the participants that the key elements of sustaining hope in patients include "authentic presence" to foster trust and love; creative problem solving to find new ways to meet the needs and hopes of the patient; and humor.
Additional events sponsored by the conference were musical performances by the Howard University Gospel Chorus, the Washington Chorus, and Beth Nielsen Chapman.
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