Deacon’s hospice experience sharpens listening skills

Story and Photos By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Deacon Brent Bourgeois was ordained as a permanent deacon in 2009 for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux and serves as a spiritual care coordinator for Notre Dame Hospice of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Deacon Bourgeois, 58, lives in Raceland and travels thousands of miles each year to visit hospice patients and their families in their time of greatest need. Sometimes, it’s not the words he offers to a person who is approaching death but the gifts of his presence and his silence that mean the most.

  Peter Finney Jr. of the Clarion Herald spoke with Deacon Bourgeois about his ministry.

How did the idea of your becoming a hospice chaplain come about?

That’s a little bit of a story. I had been working as a road welder. People would call and say they need a welder. I would either construct something or cut something. I was in adoration on a Thursday night, and I was praying that I could surrender to God and be wherever he wanted me to be. I was still working in the oil fields. For the next three Thursdays, I didn’t ask for anything. I just said my prayers and sat and listened to the sound. On the fourth Friday morning, I got into my sports truck and the phone rang. My friend asked me, “Have you ever thought about being a hospice chaplain?” He was just a friend, a machinist who was at Mass, and Father Todd was working for a hospice in Houma, and he mentioned the hospice was looking for a full-time chaplain. That was 10 years ago.

What positions have you held in hospice care?

I worked for Journey Hospice for about six years and have worked for Notre Dame Hospice for the last four years. I’m also serving at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Thibodaux. I am called a spiritual care coordinator. My wife tells people I just visit for a living. I am here to help with the spiritual needs of the patient and the caregivers. I tell everybody that I am here to minister to the whole family, not just to the patient.

What is the most important aspect of your ministry?

I just listen, basically. The biggest thing to me is that sometimes people just want to tell you their story. When I was in formation in the permanent diaconate, I remember a priest telling us something that has really come true in hospice ministry: “Every story you hear is true; it’s just that some of those stories really happened.” It makes a difference when you sit down with someone, even though they are sharing this memory that you know was impossible to have happened, but they want you to believe it. That brings them comfort.

What type of bravery or courage have you seen in those who are preparing to die?

I’ve seen incredible bravery. Many people know their faith, they embrace their faith. They know this life is a journey; it’s not the final destination. It’s humbling, and the most humbling part is when someone asks you to do their funeral. That’s happened quite a few times in my 10 years. The emotion hits you the same every time. When the family asks you to do the funeral is one thing, but when the patient asks, it’s something else. They tell me they would appreciate it if I would be at their funeral.

Are most of the patients you visit with aware of what is going on?

Yes. The majority of the time they are. Recently, I visited a new admission to a nursing home, and the wife actually left the room. She wanted me to find out what his ideas were for funeral arrangements. He hadn’t talked to the family about the arrangements, and they were afraid to talk to him about it. I told her, “There are  two ways. I will either straight out ask him or I’m going to ask him and he’s never going to realize I asked him and it’s going to come out in conversation.” This man was an accountant, and so I just asked him, “Do you have any funeral arrangements?” and he told me he was still undecided. But that conversation opened the door.

Did you have any idea you might be doing this in your life?

Once I was ordained a deacon – and I told this to Bishop Sam Jacobs – a lot of things that happened in my life became clearer as to why they happened. I’m not a counselor, but I’ve been counseling people all my life. People felt they could share things with me. I feel God has prepared me for this ministry.

What are the usual requirements for someone to receive hospice care?

They have to have a diagnosis from a doctor that they have six months to live, and the doctor has to say there will be no further treatments done (with the exception of palliative care). One man showed incredible bravery. He had pancreatic cancer and refused to take any more treatments. He had asked the doctor if he took treatments, how long would it extend his life, and he was told six weeks to three months. And then he asked how much it was going to cost. The doctor told him the cost was not the thing. But the man said, “I don’t want my legacy to be that my wife has bills to pay for me to have maybe three more months.” There was another person who was the first one to ever break through my wall and get me to tear up in his presence. He told me he hoped what he was doing would benefit someone. He believed in redemptive suffering. He refused a lot of pain medication. He wanted to feel his pain and offer it up for someone else.

Have you ever had any worries or concerns about visiting a hospice patient?

When I was in formation, I did hospital ministry during the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) section of formation. It just felt natural to go into people’s rooms and talk to them and listen to their stories. I may not be able to remember somebody’s name, but I can tell them what happened the first time we met. The first patient I ever met, I had to walk past an older gentleman who was taking care of his wife, who had Alzheimer’s. When he walked with me into the room, she called him “Momma.” He told me, “She hasn’t recognized me in years.”

Do you minister to people of all faiths?

Absolutely. Some people might say, “I don’t know if I want a Catholic chaplain.” But I tell them right away, “My job is about compassion, not conversion.” As a Catholic, it would be great for everyone to convert, but that’s not a stress we need to put on somebody.

How do you keep your emotions in check? Are there highs and lows?

It’s both. Sometimes, I can go visit people and walk away feeling like I got more than I could ever give to someone. Then there are times when I have a conversation with someone and I have to pull to the side of the road and just sit. I usually visit three or four people a day. I tell everybody I have southeast Louisiana. I go from Baton Rouge to Chauvin and from Metairie to Morgan City.

How has this affected your faith?

The simplest way to say it is I have learned more from the dying than I have learned from the living about faith.

For more information on Notre Dame Hospice, call 227-3600 or go to www.notredamehealth.org.

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