California initiative aims to transform care for dying

Sr. Eileen McNerney, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at 70 years old. A few years later, she got another illness that left her in the hospital for a few weeks. 

After these illnesses, she said, she just felt spent.

“I said to God, ‘I’m just not who I was. I’m not going to be that person again. What do you want me to do now?’ ” said McNerney, an outspoken advocate for palliative care in California. 

She jokes that she was whining, but God had a plan — “I just felt God saying to me, ‘I want you to pay attention to the long-suffering.’ “

So she looked to those in palliative care. McNerney knew palliative care helped people physically and emotionally, but she began asking, “What would palliative care for the soul look like?” 

“It’s not ‘I brought you a piece of banana bread, here’s a rose, maybe I’ll see you in a couple of months,’ ” she said. But what does it mean? 

“The commitment is, ‘I won’t leave you,’ ” she said. “We are walking each other home.” 

This kind of commitment is exactly what parishes across California are making. 

Through the Whole Person Care Initiative, all the Catholic bishops of California, the California Catholic Conference and the Alliance of Catholic Health Care have come together to create a statewide commitment to transform palliative and end-of-life care overall.

The initiative has already been presented during a conference at the Vatican, and the Diocese of Orange, California, helped hold a conference around end-of-life care in San Diego in October 2018, which included a workshop held by McNerney. 

“A big part of this effort is to just help people to start having the conversation because we know nobody wants to have these conversations,” said Greg Walgenbach, director of life, justice and peace at the Orange Diocese. “We don’t want to think about death. We don’t want to talk about end of life. But we know it’s coming.” 

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