My father told me that his grandmother practiced Santeria by wearing amulets and skirts of various colors and surrounding herself with stones in order to honor the various deities. She also made herbal remedies. I remember him explaining to me that this practice was no different from other religious traditions, that it was not witchcraft, did not hurt others, and was deeply spiritual. He believed that it was looked down upon because of its origins in slavery and false association with witchcraft.

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However, I grew up mostly with my mother’s side of the family, in which everyone is (was) actively involved in the Christian faith. I, too, practiced Christianity for many years, although not as devoutly as they did. My family actively distanced itself from those who practiced Santeria. While they acknowledged it as a religion, they even more deeply believed that it was about hurting others, did not honor God in the way that Christians do, was equivalent to witchcraft, and sought to lead followers down a path of misery and suffering. My family also believed that according to Santeria, we bring spirits with us when we die, which for them was the equivalent of demonic possession.

Recently, while interning as a counseling trainee at a local Hospice facility, these two religious pathways intersected most dramatically for me. I had stopped by the room of one of our residents, a middle-aged Cuban woman who had recently suffered a stroke and whose life had been cut short by cerebral arteriosclerosis. She would soon be leaving behind two sisters and two daughters.

As I stood in the doorway to her room, about to knock, I noticed her stones, crystals, and spirit dolls, material staples of Santeria practice. While I know people who practice the religion, I have never had, nor taken, the opportunity to speak with them about it. While the religious adornments in her room were not what I would call “extreme,” I was immediately uncomfortable. I remember thinking, “Oh, wow, what do I do now? and “Why does she have this around,” and “I don’t want to touch these things.” In looking back at that moment, I worried that my lack of experience with and knowledge of the practices of Santeria might taint my interactions with this woman.

It was at that moment that my Christianity kicked in. All those negative messages I had heard over the years about Santeria swirled in my head as I stood there unable, or perhaps unwilling, to enter. I felt caught between the competing pulls of my rigid, conservative Christian religious upbringing and my desire to enter the patient’s space and in some way be helpful. It was like trying to simultaneously focus on two discordant melodies, and not being able to clearly hear either. I realized that I was there to help this woman, to be present and open to “her,” but felt guilty for somehow betraying the values of my family. My Christianity had never been put to this kind of test.

While I so wanted to help ease her burden of impending death, I also felt guilty for not being able in the moment to fully put aside the biases I had been exposed to regarding Santeria. I remember telling myself to stay open-minded, but was painfully aware of feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to help her at all. I took a deep breath and entered her room, trying as best I could to free myself from the gravitational pull of that doorway and my inherited beliefs. I really had no choice but to push forward, at least for the moment. I knew as I entered the room that I would have to revisit this painful moment of conflict if I was to become the therapist I hoped someday to be.

When I later spoke with the patient’s daughters and sisters, each of them kind and compassionate, I realized that they, too, were having difficulty, but not for the same reasons I was. They were struggling to come to terms with the impending loss of their loved one rather than with her religious practices. I worked hard to focus on their pain so that I could be there for them as they were attempting to be there for my patient.

During that first meeting with the patient and her family, I had difficulty freeing my gaze from the dolls and scent of Florida water perfume, said to bring peace, luck, and fortune. We did not discuss Santeria—that was my issue, although I probably could’ve asked how Santeria played a role in their lives and that of my patient. They shared that my patient was the one who had been responsible for bringing most of her family from Cuba and how she was this larger-than-life person. This small but deeply significant piece of family history helped me almost instantly to see my patient as someone larger than the small, frail woman who just happened to practice a faith so different from the one in which I had been raised.

Subsequent family meetings focused on their efforts to accept the impending physical loss of their loved one and how they were attempting to build a support system around one of my patient’s daughters who was in the grips of addiction. They, like every other family in Hospice, irrespective of religious practice, were trying to come together. When my patient finally passed, they were saddened but relieved that she was no longer in pain.

I have not historically viewed myself as a closed-minded person, but in retrospect see how my faith, my religion, came with blinders. I won’t soon forget that initial feeling of discomfort when I stood in that doorway, caught between two different worlds and self-focused. My biases were laid bare that day, and thankfully, I was able to hold them in check just long enough to be of use to that dying woman. I now realize that moments of growth and self-awareness are not always accompanied by good feelings. I am, however, willing to learn, and I am taking the opportunity to better understand Santeria, and what it means to take a giant step away from certain aspects of my family history without feeling diminished or disconnected. It helps that in this my second-to-last semester of graduate studies that I am enrolled in a diversity course and am trying to be a better version of myself, so that the next time I stand in an uncomfortable doorway, I will walk inside with a lighter step.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, COVID-19 Blogs