The Heart of Hospice Social Work

Learning the Wisdom of Humility

by Jeff Collins

I was a social worker for Hospicare for 22 years, and I truly feel these years at the agency have been a profound blessing. There are many facets to this sense of blessing, but I think the deepest and richest part has been the way it has helped me see another human being as a fundamental mystery. I am coming to learn that it is my job to meet that mystery, to learn about it as best I can.

At the same time, I have a deep-seated tendency to think I know what is best for another. So much that is behind my sense of knowing what is best for another depends on my desire for him or her to live and die, and to experience loss, in a way that I am comfortable with. Now I begin to see that when I meet another person, I am meeting an unfolding world, with all of its history and momentum, its joy and pain and confusion and wisdom. And I have slowly started to understand the wisdom of an increasing humility.

Very early on in my work at Hospicare, I spent a year doing bereavement counseling with a woman who had just lost her husband. We would meet weekly, and she was generally in a state of desolation, living the question, “There is nothing for me in this life anymore, why would I want to go on?”

For quite a while I found myself trying to convince her that of course she should go on in this beautiful life of ours. She put up with me and maybe benefited from my way of being with her. But in one particular session, it finally dawned on me that I really knew nothing about this woman and her real situation. I was too busy trying to convince her of my point of view. But what did I really know about her, about the real meaning in the arc of her life, about why she was in this world and when she might be done with this world, even if her body continued to survive? I was trying to convince her of a point of view, like a lawyer trying to win an argument. So to some degree a real sense of humility landed in me, and I was much more able to meet her in a much more open way.

This gift of humility and the ability to connect with patients and their families has come to feel like the heart of my “craft” as a hospice social worker. It has lead to a deepening sense of coming home into my own life, and into life in general. All the wonderful, beautiful Hospicare patients I’ve worked with through the years have led me to this place in my own development, and I am grateful.

Jeff Collins was a social worker with Hospicare for 22 years until his retirement in 2014. He continues his involvement as a volunteer and member of our Ethics Committee. This article was originally written for our February 2014 e-newsletter.