We live in an amazingly diverse country. We have people from all over the world, from various religious backgrounds, various racial groups and all sorts of cultures and lifestyles. We live mostly with people much like ourselves, but there are many opportunities to interact with people with different backgrounds and traditions from our own. I love my own culture and religious background, and I also love opportunities to learn from people who are different from me. They help me see things from a new perspective, and sometimes they make me re-think my assumptions. I get to share my beliefs and traditions, and I get to learn about those that are new to me. The key is to be open and welcoming; to be curious and attentive.
I would like to share some general tips about providing good end-of-life care in multicultural situations. These are some suggestions that I and others have found helpful as we navigate the marvelously varied culture in which we live. In future posts on this blog, I will share some specifics of what you may encounter when you meet people from various backgrounds.
Listen and Learn
I love to talk about myself, what I do and what I believe. However, when I meet someone from a background different from mine, I find it’s better that I listen more than I talk. I do talk, of course, because sometimes others want to learn from me, but I try to begin by listening. I set aside my desire to convert the other person to my point of view. I might make a new friend and find out some interesting things that I didn’t know before.
One woman told me that in her culture it was considered rude to look someone directly in the eye when you first meet. In our culture, doing so is usually taken as a show of interest and confidence. I was pleased to learn something new from her, and she learned a little bit from me.
Diversity Within Diversity
Remember: Even though someone is part of a certain group, it doesn’t mean everyone in the group is the same. I’m a Protestant Christian, but there are many Christians who disagree with me on certain beliefs, and have different practices from mine. The same is true for other religions. A Jewish writer once penned, “Where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” If I have, say, a Muslim patient, I try not to assume that he or she believes or practices the same as other Muslims I know or have read about. Also, be careful about applying broad categories to anyone. If we learn, for example, that someone is “African,” we might have certain stereotypes in mind, but we need to realize that Africa is a huge continent with many countries and vastly different cultures and traditions. Get to know the individual and appreciate him/her for who he/she is.
Look for Mutuality
While most cultural or religious differences will not go away, it is still interesting to find out what we have in common with each other. If we listen enough, we can usually find commonalities with people from backgrounds very different from our own. We can then use those common things as a way to be friends and work together. For example, I have found that when I have patients with a different religion than mine, they still appreciate my prayers for them, even though we are coming from different points of view.
When I meet a new patient, I always ask how I can be supportive. Sometimes they say they have plenty of spiritual support and they don’t need me and that’s fine. But if they do ask for support, I ask if there is some way I can help them connect with their own religious community. I don’t assume I know everything about their background or that I can provide all their spiritual needs. If I have a Muslim patient, I ask, “Can I help you find an imam?” If I have a Catholic patient, I ask, “Do you want me to request a priest visit?” So, we should begin by asking how we can be helpful. By doing so, we acknowledge our differences, yet we don’t allow the differences to be a barrier to cooperation. Even if I have read everything I can find about, say, Buddhist end-of-life care practices, I still need to ask that person what they need and want.
Try to keep these general ideas in mind, and you may have some rich experiences that will increase your knowledge and broaden your life experiences.
Chaplain, Crossroads Hospice
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