An Interview With Darren Henson, PhD

By Gordon Nary


Gordon: When did you join Our Lady of Mt Carmel and how has the parish contributed to your spirituality?


Darren: I first became familiar with OLMC in the 1990s when I was in graduate school studying theology. Many years later, when Chicago became my home after landing a position in Catholic healthcare here, I revisited the parish. The care and the beauty of the music ministry especially, nourish a liturgical spirituality and helps me connect with the presence of the Divine encountered in the liturgy.


Gordon: One way of introducing you to our readers is this video


One of your many specialties is helping people address end–of-life issues. What are some of the more common questions that you have been asked and your advice?


Darren: Well, first I find the term end-of-life too constraining. Today, as compared to just a few short generations ago, people are living much longer. While people the world around live longer, those in our society do so with many more chronic and serious illnesses for long periods of time—many months to even several years. Thus, I strive to help provide tools and support for others to live as fully as possible whatever the condition and situations they bear.


Gordon: What have been some of the most challenging questions that you have been asked and your response?


Darren: There are plenty of really difficult cases in clinical ethics, such as the patient who wants to deactivate a pacemaker or her adult children who, as her surrogates, do not want to consent to replacing its battery. Cases involving burn patients and children often tug the hardest at the heart. And increasingly, questions concerning immigrants and refugees from many different parts of the world, diverse ethnicities, and religious traditions, pose interesting and difficult clinical ethics situations. For example, in some cultures a cesarean childbirth amounts to a form of mutilation and therefore morally objectionable. What then do we do with a woman and her family who invoke an informed refusal to standard practices of medical care? The “answer” almost always lies somewhere in the realm of “it depends.” The moral tradition is always highly nuanced, and all the details matter.

Yet, the most challenging questions often amount to some variation of “Why is God doing this?” It’s the century’s-old question of sin, suffering, and evil in the world. The answer, though complex, is something like “God isn’t doing this to you. Rather, the Gospels reveal that God suffers with you and is with you in the pain and sadness. God accompanies you through this. The terrible and evil things are the tragedy of a broken, sin-sick world. We cannot will it away, yet we can follow the traces of grace vibrantly alive in it.”


Gordon: Based on your experience, what are some of the most common obstacles to a happy death or what used to be called the ars moriendi —art of dying well.


Darren: Many people are working very hard these days to better and more deliberately integrate religion and medicine. I’m a part of several professional organizations, such as the Catholic Health Association and the Supportive Care Coalition that are working to provide materials and resources for parishes that help integrate spirituality and dimensions of our Catholic faith with the realities of living with chronic and serious illnesses. Without a spirituality grounded in the paschal mystery and the Resurrection of the dead, one easily places hope in the promise of modernity that science and technology (medicine) will save us. Tech companies, like Google, have already invested hundreds of millions in the search for immortality. They, like most of medicine, view death as the enemy. Yet it does not have to be. Chicago’s late Cardinal Bernardin wrote a book, The Gift of Peace, in his final months sharing how death became his friend. A deep and rich baptismal and Eucharistic spirituality can nourish us when we approach our own mortality and to discern the grace that God does and will provide us when our own finitude comes before us.

What I’m saying is we have too few practical and useful tools at the moment to help us cope—especially spiritually from within the Catholic tradition— with chronic illness, years-long caregiving for loved ones, and a gospel-based hopefulness in the face of death. Priest need better tools to preach confidently and routinely on this matter. Parishes hunger for more pastorally appropriate materials and helpful resources to build caregiver ministries, faith-based health outreach, and communities of love and support for the frail elderly. Instead, we’ve been trained to presume that all our needs for our illness and chronic conditions should, ought, and will be met by medical institutions. We need to dream afresh of how our faith communities can also take the lead with the hopefulness of Jesus the healer who walked our walk, died our death, and rose to new and everlasting life promising that we too will share in that resurrection!


Gordon: Please share with our readers some of your experiences during you mother’s illness.


Darren: Rosie’s story was beautifully shared by The Leaven. Having worked her whole life in healthcare as an x-ray tech, my mom knew clearly what she would want and not want as her disease progressed. We were incredibly fortunate to have discovered an outpatient palliative care clinic in Topeka, KS—Midland Care. We had hoped that my dad, Duane would be able to stay well enough, long enough to continue managing both of their significant chronic conditions. But like many other primary caregivers, he experienced a debilitating episode that landed him in the hospital facing some of the most significant questions to discern that one might face. He died in June 2016. Our family was devastated and left wondering how best to care for my mom Rosie. We made a really difficult decision – to do what my mom absolutely resisted. That was to place her in the care of a nursing facility. She had long dreamed to die at home. But now, home would be somewhere other than the beautiful place she and Duane had created.

As the link above describes, the women of the parish proved to be a most grace-filled part of the journey. They never abandoned her. Rather, they requested that the Monday lunch visit continue! Despite the challenges of transition and lifestyle differences in a nursing facility, the accompaniment and visits several times a week from different friends from the parish made it a graced journey.

I must also say, that the accompaniment of a palliative care team helped preserve her wishes. There were occasion when the nursing home wanted to send Rosie to the hospital, fearing her condition had worsened. Mom never wanted to be hospitalized. She knew it would lead to interventions that she did not want. She wanted to die naturally and peacefully and to be with Duane. The palliative care team knew how to direct the nursing home staff to care appropriately for Rosie in her own room – in the habitat and space most familiar to her. With their help and guidance, she died peacefully in her own room, surrounded by the people and things she loved most.


Gordon: The Catholic Heath Association has several great booklets on End-of-Life Guides including Caring for People at the End of Life

and Caring When We Cannot Cure

which our readers will appreciate


In closing, you are setting new sartorial standard for men with your great bow ties. How many bow ties do you have?


Darren: 47


Gordon: Thank you for sharing your insights .experiences, and advice on an issue that all of us will need to address at some time.

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