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The Billings Gazette, Martin Kidston, Associated Press
Love lights decorate the mantel over the fireplace in the foyer of the Spirit Mountain Hospice Center in Cody, Wyo., on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. Shaped like ornaments, the little placards carry mementos written by family members who recently lost a loved one. Randy Leisey, the spiritual counselor and volunteer coordinator at the Spirit Mountain Hospice Center in Cody, has made a career out of helping people deal with loss. He spends his days listening to stories of grief and helping patients find a comfortable end to life.

CODY, Wyo. — Many years ago, Randy Leisey was told that life is learning to deal with a series of losses.

It seemed like a negative outlook when he first heard it said, but as time has gone by, he thinks it's beginning to make more sense.

Leisey, the spiritual counselor and volunteer coordinator at the Spirit Mountain Hospice Center in Cody, has made a career out of helping people deal with loss.

He spends his days listening to stories of grief and helping patients find a comfortable end to life.

"Sometimes we have to encourage them to let go," Leisey said as snow fell beyond the vaulted windows of Wyoming's newest hospice center. "There's always unfinished business. We have those kinds of conversations, and you never know where they're going to go."

As the countdown to Christmas was under way, Leisey wandered the halls of Spirit Mountain, waiting to lead a bereavement talk scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m.

A Christmas tree stood in the foyer, and "love lights" decorated the mantel over the fireplace. Shaped like ornaments, the little placards carry mementos written by family members who recently lost a loved one.

"Generally, hospice care is pain control," Leisey said. "We enable people to have good quality of life up to the end — up to their capabilities. When they're here, the decision has already been made that a cure is no longer possible."

With baby boomers growing older, Wyoming is facing a shortage of hospice centers and the services required to meet the needs of an aging population.

Looking toward the future, West Park Hospital District trustees approved a capital campaign in 2008 to fund Spirit Mountain, and construction began a year ago this month.

The $3.2 million facility opened in October and is the only hospice center within a 100-mile radius. Leisey expects it will fill an important niche in rural Wyoming in the coming years.

"There are only five of these in the whole state," Leisey said. "The centers in Cheyenne and Riverton were getting patients from this part of the state. Now, we're getting referrals from Worland and Thermopolis. It really fills a need."

Adults 65 and older now represent more than 28 percent of the population in Park, Washakie, Hot Springs and Big Horn counties. The Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis predicts that will increase to 35 percent by 2020.

Spirit Mountain is ready. Hospital officials expect that the facility will serve 100 patients a year, with an average stay of 29 days. Meals, medical supplies and medications are provided by West Park Hospital.

Aside from offering routine in-home care, Spirit Mountain also offers respite care and general inpatient care, or when additional support is needed in the final weeks of life.

The center's staff includes nurses, nursing assistants and social workers. Religious support is available as needed.

It's the spiritual aspect of death and dying that gets Leisey talking. He's made a career of helping patients and families deal with death.

"Even though people aren't necessarily church members, they love to see me," he said. "We just talk about the meaning of life. I love to hear their stories. I don't have any agenda with them, other than recognizing that we all have a spiritual component, and it's different for everybody."

Loss is never easy, but the holiday season can be especially hard, Leisey said. He calls it a poignant time of year, and he talks about grief and its many forms.

Dealing with loss on a daily basis is not easy work, he admits, and the emotional toll can add up, even for a spiritual provider accustomed to the work.

"We grieve about the way we used to feel about Christmas when we were young, the magic of the season," he said. "We grieve for the people we've lost over the years. It's a matter of asking the creative question, so they continue telling their story and getting it all out. It doesn't happen in one sitting."

Information from: Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com