Twenty-nine-year-old seminarian Erin Raska was uneasy about death and dying. As an aspiring minister, she also knew her chosen profession would eventually demand she attend to those facing death – and loved ones grieving for those who’d died.
To allay her fears, she took a most unusual path: She plunged into a summer internship with Hospice of Spokane.
The local, nondenominational nonprofit last year touched the lives of 1,375 terminally ill people who sought comfort care over further life-saving medical treatments. The local branch was founded in 1977.
“I knew I wanted to do something to wrestle with death and dying. And I knew it was something I needed to do to come to terms with it in my own life,” said Raska, a Whitworth University graduate from Lewiston.
Yet despite her best intentions, Raska said it required steely fortitude to face her initial encounter with someone just hours from death.
“I knew it would be an internal struggle. But I assumed I’d have poise,” she said of the experience.
She’d been called to the home of an elderly, critically ill man. She slipped quietly into his room. He was unconscious and family members had cleared out to give the chaplain-in-training time with him.
Raska confessed that her first instinct was to leave the room.
“But I made myself sit and be present with the dying.” She stayed with the man – a practicing Christian – and said a prayer. “It was a ‘baptism by fire,’ ” she softly recalled.
Like her fellow students at New Jersey-based Princeton Theological Seminary, she’s expected to complete two internships. The first is working at a church; the second in a clinical setting, usually hospitals.
Raska sought and received special permission from Princeton and her local Presbyterian Church mentors to spend her 350-hour internship at Hospice of Spokane. She’s one of only a handful of students from her school ever to request hospice placement.
“It’s allowed me to be more comfortable with death and dying – and to process my own mortality,” said Raska, who will begin her third and final year of seminary this fall.
Now, she sees death as a “beautiful, natural process during which our bodies and souls work in tandem.”
People of all ages, ethnicities and faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics, seek hospice care. Some of them have already made peace with their impending deaths, Raska said. Others are frightened and anxious.
During her 10-week program, she regularly worked with seven to 10 hospice clients in their homes and makes frequent rounds at nursing homes, adult care facilities, group homes and Hospice House, a relatively new 12-bed facility Hospice of Spokane operates.
Each week, she’s shared with staff chaplain Sheryll Shephard, her supervisor, a written account of a particularly poignant client interaction.
The sessions “help me to see what sort of issues I bring to the table” and reflect on them, Raska said.
On a recent sunny morning, she accompanied Shephard on a call to 70-year-old hospice client Bernadine Ray.
Ray, once an active angler and camper, has an incurable lung disease and needs oxygen round-the-clock to breathe. Still feisty, Ray rocked back and forth in a mauve recliner on her back porch, surrounded by her husband and seven sets of wind chimes.
Ray has opted to stop taking an experimental medication that didn’t seem to be helping her condition. Hospice care has been a godsend, she said.
Raska chatted with Ray about the most important things in life and nature. It’s discussions like this, Ray said, that have been instrumental in helping her come to grips with death while helping her make the most of every day.
Heart-to-heart conversations “have made it so much easier for me. It’s nice to have the one-on-one – and nothing’s off limits,” said Ray, who wonders how hospice chaplains find the strength to work every day with the dying.
After the visit, Shephard and Raska agreed their clients are “blessings.”
“I’ve learned what a privilege it is to be present with people who are taking their last breaths. They’ll always be special people. You put them in your heart, and I’ll carry them with me my whole life,” Raska said.