Nurturing the spirit to find peace and purpose at the end of life


Peace, purpose and meaning are terms that can’t always be easily illustrated or explained.

But it’s what the Rev. Nathaniel Johnson brings to the people he sees as one of eight spiritual caregivers employed by Emmanuel Hospice.

“My job is to help remind folks of what brings meaning, hope and purpose to their lives,” he says. “Many times when people are faced with a physical health crisis, such as a terminal prognosis, their world gets recalibrated, and you look for things that you can hang onto in the midst of the uncertainty.

“I connect people with those things that help them find a foothold in this very uncertain process. For some, it’s a faith connection. For others, it might be connecting through nature – via gardening or photography or art or anything that brings beauty into their life.

“For some, it’s family – looking into the faces of their children or grandchildren and being reminded of their legacy, how it continues on long after they’re gone physically.”

In any case, he emphasizes: “It expands into something so much broader than one’s religious identity. That’s certainly a component, but it’s also about who am I, what matters to me, what gives me meaning and purpose and hope.”

Johnson’s perspective has been shaped over a lifetime of serving the spiritual needs of others. He was born and raised in Japan, one of four children born to missionaries.

He has more than 30 years of experience, having served two Methodist churches in West Michigan and as a chaplain at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.  

He has developed into a champion for hospice care, which he points out “is a vital aspect of care ... completely covered by Medicare,” but for which too many people wait too long to sign up for.

Johnson emphasizes hospice is about helping people decide how they want to live out the rest of their lives. In acknowledging the spiritual component Emmanuel Hospice focuses on as part of its caregiving, Johnson explains.

“Suddenly the laundry and the dirty house are not nearly the priorities they once were. What comes to the surface are relationships that might need mending – healing that needs to happen – what we can do to reconcile things in our lives.”

Johnson and his colleagues work hard to discover how to best serve Emmanuel’s clients from a spiritual perspective. That might mean exploring their pasts, looking and listening for clues that will help them find peace and purpose as they continue on their journeys.

Some of his most meaningful work with patients has revolved around recalling and singing sacred hymns. Just weeks ago, he was called in to be with a woman who was in the last days of her life.

He sat with the woman and her daughter and shared with the daughter that he and her mother had enjoyed a favorite hymn together, and then he sang it and followed it up with prayer. The woman died in the next moment, prompting Johnson to say, “You don’t forget a moment like that.”

A first step toward engaging hospice, he says, is to “please, please, please have a conversation with your loved ones now,” before a time comes when caregivers have to make decisions without the ability to consult their loved ones.

“Unfortunately, these human bodies of ours were not made to last forever,” Johnson says. “But with a timely introduction of hospice, we can help people have a fantastic finish to their life.”