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Hospice chaplain faces death daily as ‘a privilege … a calling&

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Margie Atkinson is surrounded by death and despair. Each day, she joins hand with people with Alzheimer’s disease, terminal cancer and numerous other fatal conditions, often accompanying them along the final steps of their lives.
Atkinson is chaplain and director of spiritual care for Community Hospice in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Helping the bereaved through a terrifically traumatic event and working with the dying is a privilege, but it is also a calling,” she said — her calling.
Her chaplaincy ministry extends beyond cancer patients and the elderly.
“Most here are cancer patients, but we also serve stroke victims, Alzheimer patients and any other terminal persons,” Atkinson said. “Another misconception is that all our patients are old. We provide hospice care to 40-year-old women with breast cancer and children with terminal birth defects too.”
Atkinson said one of her most difficult cases was helping a young mother who was grieving over her child who was dying from a form of encephalitis, a swelling of the brain.
“The baby bled to death in her arms,” Atkinson recounted. “The mother struggled greatly with her grief. She had no hope because she didn’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ. She couldn’t understand why it happened. Soon after the baby’s death, she attempted to take her own life as well.”
Such is life in a hospice, where most of the stories do not conclude with “and they lived happily ever after.” Death is almost always a certainty, and the grief that follows must be confronted.
The continual tide of loss of life can erode the shores of the hospice workers’ spirits. “It is easy to get close to the patients, especially when they stay at the hospice as live-in patients,” Atkinson said.
The staff has banded together, constructing a spiritual dam against the eroding effects of death. Atkinson, who has become a minister to the staff as well as the patients, leads a weekly service for staff members to cope with traumas of the previous week. Each Monday, they gather and memorialize those who recently died.
“Our staff has become a little parish,” Atkinson said. “We’ve learned to trust one another. Working with the dying sounds so depressing, but it isn’t. God often reveals himself during these times.”
Sometimes, she has to remind herself to leave work at work.
“I have to practice a lot of self-care,” she said. “I’ve learned it’s OK for a minister to take a couple of hours of downtime when necessary in order to remember I’m still alive and have much to rejoice about.”
Hospice care is not where Atkinson thought she would minister, simply because she never knew it existed before enrolling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, where she earned a master of divinity degree in 1994.
“Seminary was an awesome experience for me. I had so much learning to do once I got there,” she said.
Her learning included involvement in the chaplaincy program in her last semester.
“I got involved in the training program at Parkland Hospital. I enjoyed it so much that I served two years at Harris Hospital. I learned that I loved health care, which led me to hospice work. I started in oncology treatment and trauma and now serve in my current capacity,” she said.
“Ministry has been an evolution,” she continued. “I started from a very evangelistic perspective. While I’m still deeply committed to sharing the gospel, I approach ministry differently. My ministry has moved more toward pastoral care, meeting them where they are and ministering to their needs.”
She noted the incarnational character of chaplaincy as even non-Christians make some link between her title and God. “I can represent Christ, go to their bed and lead the family surrounding the dying patient to pray for that person,” she said.
Along with the evolution of her ministry, Atkinson has learned to minister more effectively and appropriately.
“I have had to learn what and when to say things,” she said. “Some of the most beautiful Scripture verses hurt the hearts of the nonbeliever. I use prayer a lot. Through prayer I have seen the peace of God come to those, whether they know the Lord or not, even in their most tragic of situations. The Word of God is powerful.
“My aim is to walk with people to the end of their journey,” she said. “I don’t want to rush anyone along or tell them how to do it. I just let them know the Lord is with them and his love and faithfulness will never leave them.”
At times, Atkinson has to be creative in her ministry.
“Once I was ministering to a woman with Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Soon the lady became unresponsive. I noticed she had a Bible. Alongside one of her Psalms, she noted her brother John died in 1973. I sang that Psalm to her, and she remembered John from it. Music and hymns are a powerful way to minister to these people.”
Atkinson said her ministry has offered valuable life and death lessons.
“Often you die like you live,” she said. “I’ve seen people die bitter, angry and alone because they have no hope. I’ve also seen people thank God for all they have, never complaining even though they are amidst terrible suffering. No matter what, death is certain for everyone. The things we do each day do matter.”
She recalled the last moments of one woman’s life journey.
“I recently developed a close relationship with an elderly woman,” Atkinson said. “When I received notice she was actively dying, I went to her and held her hand. We began praying the Lord’s Prayer together because she loved that prayer. We reached the words, ‘forgive us our trespasses.’ She barely whispered the words. Once she said them, she quit breathing. It felt like electricity when she died, like she was waiting for that one part of the prayer. God’s forgiveness was her first and last concern.”

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  • Bryan McAnally