Spiritual care deepens hospice work

Muriel Wolf is Brattleboro Area Hospice's spiritual companion.

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BRATTLEBORO — Muriel Wolf dedicated most of her 25 years with Brattleboro Area Hospice to bereavement counseling.

"Then I decided to both broaden and deepen the work I wanted to do," the hospice's spiritual companion said.

The spiritual care program began about two years ago. It's offered to dying clients, their family members, grieving clients, and volunteers and staff at the hospice.

Wolf described herself as a seeker interested in receiving the gifts of wisdom from faith traditions. When first meeting with a client, she doesn't ask about religion.

"I say, 'How are your spirits?'" she said.

The approach involves looking at spirit as the foundation beneath a person's heart, mind and body. Wolf said she assists clients in locating their "most inner, intuitive yearnings" then aligning those with their life as it's being lived.

"The more closely those two things are aligned, the more nurtured the spirit is and the more able it is to support a whole being in whatever circumstances or events come along," she said.

She'll ask clients how they want to experience their last days. She believes someone's spiritual needs can be addressed when they are unconscious if they make their wishes known earlier on.

Clients are offered dream work, journaling, ritual making activities and breathwork. They also can look at how to resolve issues or forgive people.

'A great honor'

Before the pandemic, Wolf met with clients at their homes. Her first for spiritual care elected to use Act 39, the Vermont law allowing those with terminable diseases the option to be prescribed a dose of medication that will end their life.

Wolf recalled meeting with the woman every week as well as with the client's mother and a good friend of hers. She described the in-person interactions as intimate.

"It's a great honor for someone to invite me into their life at such a tender and vulnerable time," she said. "Really what my work focuses on is presence, my presence with another person. There's a lot that is offered through gaze and through connection on an energetic level."

As the pandemic pulled people away from those modes of communication, she believes more thought is being given to the differences found between in-person and remote interactions.

"In my work," she said, "it makes a huge difference."

She's been meeting with clients outdoors when possible. Pretty soon, she'll be moving to strictly remote meetings.

Beginning Oct. 13, Wolf will co-facilitate a new support group meeting twice a month via Zoom teleconferencing software. Eligible for participation are individuals experiencing loss of all kinds.

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That might include sense of purpose, salary job or profession. Other losses might involve contact with friends, family members, spiritual congregation or medical providers.

Wolf said one group member's mother died for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus but wasn't able to receive family visits for the last six weeks of her life. She believes the pandemic is creating a lot of trauma outside of that experienced by frontline workers.

Masks cut facial expressions out of in-person interactions, a hardship Wolf acknowledged when talking about meeting with clients. One silver lining she cited is the ability for the new support group's remote meetings to allow someone in Burlington to participate and another involves people experiencing a deeper appreciation for things ordinarily taken for granted.

Having facilitated a writing support group for the hospice for about 10 years, Wolf wonders what the remote meetings will do to the connections made among the participants and their overall energy.

"There's something that radiates out from a person that you can experience when they're physically present that doesn't come across when you're online," she said.

She said not being able to gather at the kitchen table at the hospice office for their monthly meetings, staff decided to host weekly remote meetings because they no longer had the contact they grew accustomed to in the office.

During a time when many individuals feel vulnerable, Wolf sees people learning more about their personal ethics. She said they're looking more deeply at how they want to treat each other and themselves.

With cold weather coming, Wolf anticipates feelings of loneliness similar to those experienced at the beginning of the pandemic will return. She expects political issues and concerns over climate change or disfranchisement could be brought up in the new support group.

"There's a lot of grieving going on in this country right now and the pandemic is just like this blasting force that has not succeeded in quieting those other things," she said.

The group is full now but Wolf suggested another might be formed if there's enough interest. She's also available to meet with anyone in Windham County who is struggling with pandemic-related issues.

Bereavement counseling and hospice care are still available. All hospice services are free.

Wolf said she loves her job because she has always been able to tell clients that.

"We are one of the old fashioned, volunteer hospices," she said.

She estimated revenue from Experienced Goods, the hospice's thrift store in downtown Brattleboro, accounts for more than half of the group's annual operating budget. Operations also are covered by donations, gifts and fundraisers.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.