I have heard it said that there are only two things that are unavoidable in this life: death and taxes. I question this because I am pretty sure there are people who do escape taxes in this life. Instead, I propose the two absolutes of life are suffering and death. Life is hard living in this fallen and broken world, and we will all suffer and struggle at times (Jesus was not lying when he said, “…In this world you will have trouble…”) And of course, try as we might, no one escapes death.
This is true no matter who you are, how much money you make, how smart you are, what your faith background or current religious practice is, or even how “good” you are – you have to go through the struggles of life, and you will meet death. Each are a part of life. You may get away without paying your taxes, but you will not escape either suffering or death.
You might think this is beginning to sound like a morbid post, but as I grow in my faith, I find These absolutes of life, suffering and death, to be intimate and precious pieces of my journey. These are the moments where I have grown in faith, love, empathy, and even hope. These have been life changing moments.
Spending the past year working as a hospital chaplain I saw a lot of suffering and death. I found people, even in the hospital, are rarely just suffering physically, there is often an emotional and/or spiritual suffering that goes along with it. Walking alongside people in their suffering has given me a deep desire to meet people in the midst of their life crisis and journey with them as they find healing and hope. This confirmed my initial call to chaplain work.
This Chaplain journey does not stop there but has led me to a specific kind of chaplaincy, Hospice Chaplaincy. The end of life. That precious place we all will come to, and no one escapes. The goal of hospice is to help patients, who are at the end of life, find meaning, purpose, and hope as they live out their last days. This includes helping the patient’s family to find hope in the remaining sacred and precious moments with their loved one; moments they will treasure the rest of their lives. This is a very intimate space and one I feel honored to hold for my patients and their families.
Reflecting back on where I have been and where I am going I marvel at how God has used my experiences to minister to others in the moment, and to prepare and direct me along my journey. My personal hospice experience with my mom in February 2020, while I was a pastor in the church before I ever thought about being a chaplain, had a profound effect on the trajectory of my journey. Let me take a moment to share my hospice story.
Life is unpredictable. One minute I was enjoying my two grandchildren as we awaited the birth of our third, and the next minute I got the call saying my mom was dying and I needed to get to the hospital, six hours away, asap.
As a pastor I wonder if I should pray for a miracle – expecting a physical healing and avoid the suffering and struggle that is sure to come. I realize, almost instantaneously, that the miracle for my mom is to have all four of her children and their spouses, together, gathered around her. Nothing else matters as all distractions are put aside and I travel with my husband to my mom’s bedside. I am the last to arrive and she is taken off life supporting dialysis as she is placed on hospice and her care plan is switched to comfort care only.
She is not expected to make it through the night, so my sister and I stay the night with her. I am afraid to sleep for fear she will pass while we sleep, I am afraid to stay awake for fear I might helplessly witness her final breath. I do not know what to do. I feel awkward and ill-equipped for such a task as holding vigil while someone lay dying – especially my mom. My mom, for whom I hold as much unresolved hurt, anger, guilt, and regret as I do love, appreciation, admiration, and gratitude for her.
Throughout the week, at the hospital and then later at a hospice home, my mom is cared for by people who bless us with their care and concern, the nurses, the chaplain, the hospice administrators. We get to be fully present with her, and with each other, so we can do the work of grief and reconciliation, in an effort to find hope in all of it.
The sacred moments, those moments so powerful they cannot be explained any other way, come as the very presence of God is felt like a warm blanket wrapping around the three of us holding us, warming us, healing us of past hurts as we talk and pray. The precious moments come as our mom, who has been unresponsive, signals she hears and approves as she places her hand on her heart in response to these encounters. The hope comes as my mom releases me to go and to be with my son and daughter-in-law and meet our new grandson, Casey Philip, as he makes his debut into this world.
It is the greatest joy of all, supporting my children, affirming their value, and seeing new life come into our family through this precious new baby. It is this infusion of joy that I know will get me through the grief that awaits as I return to my mom’s bedside. I return in time to share the pictures and report on the baby and parents, as promised. My mom never opens her eyes or responds, but I know she heard every word. And I know this is what she needed to find release – she would not die on the baby’s birthday.
My two sisters, our husbands, and my niece are there. We are awake and together until 4:15am, when everyone dozes off. I awake with a start at 4:45am and I know immediately my mom is gone. I get up and go to her bedside, everyone else is sleeping. I feel awkward and do not know what to do. So, I tell her, “It is OK; you did good mom.” I cannot touch her for fear she is already cold. My sister is a nurse, so I wake her up saying, “I think mom is gone.”
It is only now I understand how life and death can both take your breath away.
As I step into this next phase of my ministry as a Hospice chaplain I have a great sense of peace. I know I am right where I am supposed to be, doing what God has prepared and equipped me for – to help patients and families find the sacred in these precious last moments of life – and new hope for the way forward.