LAURINBURG — Seven years ago, Warren Jones Jr. was dragged kicking and screaming into Hospice of Scotland County.
Spending his days comforting the old, the sick and the dying was not something the 21-year-old was at all interested in. But his mother’s plans for him could not be shaken — and her intuition proved to be sound as well.
The volunteer work Jones did to comfort those in their last days led him to change his career path from business to ministry, and eventually to join a team of two other ministers — John Miritim, employed as the Hospice chaplain, and Robert Starner, a volunteer — who all work to help to ease patients into death.
“Most people just want to be comforted, really, more than anything,” said Starner, an associate pastor at Woodville Pentecostal Holiness Church in Laurel Hill. “People like to be able to express their concerns about death.”
Starner and Jones, an associate pastor at Judah International Ministries in Maxton, have joined Miritim in visiting Hospice patients at Scotland County homes and facilities. They are a shoulder to cry on, a friend to talk to, a liaison between the patient and the patient’s church, a reinforcement for an already strong faith or a guide to a spiritual world yet unexplored. They answer questions and comfort family, friends and neighbors.
“Every pastor wouldn’t necessarily want to deal with this,” Starner said. “Most pastors have to deal with it in some way or form, but … it took me a while to get used to having to deal with death every day. It’s not the easiest thing in the world but it’s a needful thing. We all have to die and someone has to be there to support that.”
After coming on board at Hospice a little more than a year ago, Miritim realized that the job, which required frequent travel between several counties, was too much for one person to perform as well as offer quality end-of-life care to patients — a passion of his ever since he realized, while serving as a pastor at a church in Maryland, that people don’t know how to address the death of a loved one.
“I can make a good pastor, but I realized I was more passionate about helping people and being there for people, and it came out of a need at our local church where we had someone with cancer,” he said. “Looking back, I realize we did not do a good job of providing pastoral care for that person.
“We did not talk about end of life, we did not talk about death and dying. Of course we knew he was dying, but we never sat down and talked about it. … We never prepared him for death and we never prepared ourselves. So when he died I kind of had a lot of regret that we did not do a good job.”
Miritim continued his education with a year-long residency at Duke University Hospital, where he learned how to deal with death by visiting as many as 20 dying patients and their families each day. Often, he would accompany the dead until their family arrived, taking the time to reflect on the person’s life and imagine how many lives they had touched.
“I’ve come to enjoy it — not to enjoy people dying, but being there when people need us,” he said. “It’s been very challenging, but one of the things I find is once you embrace your mortality, and know it and accept it and know that it’s the way of life, that’s how God designed life, you will be comfortable around death and dying.”
Miritim decided to seek out others with the same outlook on death to serve as volunteer chaplains at Hospice, to increase the amount of patients who could receive spiritual care. Besides Jones and Starner, there are two in South Carolina and one in Pembroke, all of whom went through a training course.
For the group, the work is often not easy. Some homes are nice, while others are not as welcoming. Some have a plate of food ready when they arrive, while others are suspicious of their presence.
But the three often form strong bonds with patients, sometimes staying in contact with families long after a loved one is departed. They have the opportunity to form bonds with strangers that, however fleeting, always leave an impact — often in the form of lessons learned.
“We take away a lot from people and the families,” Miritim said. “I have a patient right now, they’ve been married 60 years. Their story is really cute. They met the first day of school in the first grade, finally dated and got married and are very close. He never gets very far away from her. He’s just sitting next to the bed, every day when I come, even if he’s not doing anything but just being there. Their love is just out of this world.”
“I had a man tell me right before he died, maybe a day or two before, he said ‘Robert, you need to take some time with your wife, just your time,” Starner said. “… I learned that from a guy who was about 91.”
“It makes you realize that you don’t need to waste so much of your life before you realize that. We see people die at all ages all the time.”
As Miritim said, being exposed to death and dying on a daily basis is a life-affirming experience, making him appreciate his own health and vitality — and keeping his focus on what is really important.
“People on their death beds express a lot of regrets for missed opportunities to spend time with their loved ones, to build their relationships with family and friends. I’ve never heard a regret about not having made this amount of money or not having spent more time at the office.”
“All that doesn’t matter at death.”