One of the many things we are taught in orientation and training for my new position as hospice chaplain is to speak clearly about death. To call it like we see it – do not mince words or use euphemisms like, passed away, departed, gone, lost the battle… you get the idea. People tend to use these expressions when they are uncomfortable with what is happening. No doubt death is an uncomfortable conversation for most people.
Maybe it is because I work in hospice now, but it seems I am suddenly hyper-aware of this – that is, the uncomfortable response of people to death and suffering. Whether they are talking to the person who is sick and dying, or they are talking to the family who is grieving, they respond with words they think are comforting. Words like: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “God has a plan.” “There is a reason for everything.” “Stay positive, it will get better.” These are just a small sampling of the condolences being offered to hurting people I have seen on social media. These expressions are in response to a multitude of grief; from a mom who has recently experienced a miscarriage to a spouse who has lost their other half.
I do believe each one of these expressions comes from a genuine desire to help, to bring comfort, and to be a support. And just in case you think I am sounding high and mighty let me confess; I am sure I have been guilty, a time or ten, of some of these words. But as those words glare at me now, I have to wonder, why do we say those things?
Most people want to fix a problem and make it go away rather than sit with it and experience it. But death does not go away. Aa a result, grief and suffering are a real process everyone must go through. Grief and suffering are different for each person – so we can never really know what the other is going through. Our situation, while similar, is not the same. So how can we possibly have a solution or an answer to their pain? How can we possibly expect to “fix it” in a brief, meant to be comforting statement?
The reality is in the midst of grief, for those who believe in God, the idea that God would heap this grief on them or make a plan that involves their suffering might not be helpful; for those who do not believe or are struggling with God, this just further alienates. And why does there always have to be a reason? Sometimes life just happens. Staying positive in this moment is just not an option – it will never get better unless we acknowledge all of our emotions, negative included. All feelings are valid and need to be felt and expressed to be processed – sadness, grief, guilt, anger – all of it.
As I think about this I am reminded of the familiar biblical character Job, and his three friends. Job suffered deep loss of almost everything, save his own life and his relationship with God. His friends, at first, came alongside him with empathy. They literally just sat in the dirt with him, without a word (Job 2:13). I suspect until the grief got too much for them to bear and then they began to look for “reasons” why this might be happening to Job and offering him solutions to end his grief and suffering. His friends had it right, until their discomfort caused them to talk.
When people are grieving, all they really need is someone to “sit in the dirt” with them. Someone to just be present, to not be afraid of the awkwardness of grief or to feel the need to fix it. Someone to simply acknowledge their grief and allow them to experience it fully, without commentary from us.
Sometimes life just stinks. We cannot avoid it. Sometimes there are just no words.
As a hospice chaplain, we deal daily with death. This is not a morbid place, but a place of peace, dignity, and surrender. People on hospice have, for the most part, come to terms with their mortality. They have opted for their last days to be pain-free with no heroic efforts to hang on to life, other than to live it to the fullest, surrounded by those they love. These people accept this as a part of their life, and they lean into it, trusting the timing of their life, and death, to a power greater than medical science.
As beautiful as this time of acceptance can be, it does not come without moments of grief, anger, regret, and sadness. These moments become opportunities to just be present, with no words, and allow them to experience and feel all of life.
Death can be an uncomfortable topic; one we might prefer to side-step. I am learning to face it head on as I help others to walk through this very precious time of life. I am also learning I do not need words for my presence to be a comfort, even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Neither death nor silence need to be feared by those of us who have the privilege of presence with those who are dying. In the words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross from her book On Death and Dying, “Those who have the strength and love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body.”