Last week, a celebrity from my home state died. Fred Phelps is about as notorious as Kansans get. As the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps was at the helm of one of the most publicly, vehemently hateful groups in our country. We like to think that we’re nice people in the Midwest, so the hate and vitriol spewed by this group is both profoundly confusing and deeply embarrassing. I’ve been speculating on the source of Phelps’s hatred with fellow Kansans since my high school psychology class. The fact that our biggest national news stories have often been focused on the Phelps family? That’s something we take personally.
So it’s safe to say that Kansans weren’t terribly sad to see Fred Phelps go. I wasn’t. I hope that by losing their founder, the Westboro Baptist Church will also lose some of their steam and quit hurting so many people in our communities and across the country. And I hope the national news outlets will turn their attention from the Phelps family to something more positive, like a new universal preschool program or nation-leading innovations in the Department of Aging and Disability Services. (Are you listening, Governor?)
There is one piece of the Fred Phelps story that I really do want to highlight, though, and that is something that came to light in his estranged son Nathan’s Facebook page several days before his death. In that post, Nathan Phelps reported that his father was “now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.”
Did you catch that?
Fred Phelps died in hospice care.
That fact makes me tear up, out of great pride for my fellow hospice workers, and deep humility for the profound work we are called to do.
I believe at the deepest core of my being that everyone – EVERYONE – deserves grace and kindness and comfort and peace at the end of life. And that’s exactly what hospices provide.
I don’t know anyone who works at Midland Hospice and can’t say anything about the care they provided to Fred Phelps. But there is little doubt in my mind that Phelps was treated with all the dignity and respect and care that hospice professionals give to every patient at the end of life.
I may not have worked with Phelps, but as a hospice music therapist, I have worked with people who have done many horrible things. I’ve worked with people who had deep remorse over awful things they had done in the past, people who did not at all regret acts and beliefs that I personally didn’t agree with, and probably plenty of people who had ugly stories that remained hidden right through the very end. For every single one of them, my hospice colleagues and I did whatever we could to give them comfort and to treat them with kindness and compassion in their final days.
That is just what hospice professionals do.
Fred Phelps was a hateful man who did a lot of despicable and disgusting things, but it gives me hope to know that he was on hospice care at the end of his life. I hope that he experienced the grace and compassion that he denied to so many others and that somehow it made a difference.