Reflections of a Hospice Chaplain
Dying is a sacred time in each of our lives--just as sacred as our births. It is such a privilege to companion people who are transitioning and their families. As a follower of Jesus, my role as a chaplain is deeply informed by the seven things he is recorded as saying during his crucifixion. These sayings give me a template for meeting people where they are in the dying process and for accompanying the families who are there with them.
Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
You may be familiar with the 5 stages of grief delineated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The first stage is denial, where the prognosis is not real to the patient and family. And after comes the anger, bargaining, and depression. This is when the patient or family member cries out to God with questions such as, “Why me? Why now? Why did you allow this to happen to me?” They are trying to make sense of it all, and I am here to companion them through the process toward acceptance, if it comes. As their chaplain, I am holding the questions with them so that they know that their feelings are welcome and that they are not alone.
Jesus said, “I thirst.”
I listen for what the person is thirsting at this time of transition. Are they thirsting for peace? Are they thirsting to know that their families will be okay when they are gone? Sometimes they are still thirsting for answers. And their families thirst, too. Most of the time, the family thirsts to know that their dying family member will be kept comfortable and have a peaceful transition. And sometimes they thirst to know why this is happening, too. So I listen. I listen with loving attention to the stories they tell me. I listen to hear the desires of their hearts.
Jesus said, “Woman, behold your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “Behold your mother.”
What are the loose ends that need to be tied up, in their view? What business needs to be completed so that they may transition without worry? I listen so that I can help them name their concerns and make plans to address the unfinished business. I enlist the help of our hospice social workers if resources are needed.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Many times patients are dying with regrets on their hearts; and sometimes there is discord in the family that prevents the person and family from being at peace. When the patient is interested, I can reassure him or her that forgiveness is possible, that we have a God of mercy and compassion. I remind them of the story of the prodigal son.
Jesus said, “It is finished.”
Receiving a prognosis begins the process of letting go. One is letting go of everything that one holds dear--family, friends, work, home, health. We can’t take anything with us. It is also a time where one may gain clarity on letting go of unrealistic expectations of family members and friends and releasing expectations of perfection imposed on oneself. Now the present moment really comes into focus. That was yesterday. This is today, and the past is finished.
Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
As their chaplain, I do the best I can to comfort them with words from scripture. I remind them about how much God loves us, how we are precious and honored in God's sight, how God is FOR us and nothing can separate us from God's love.
And finally, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
When the time of transition arrives, as I am able to be with them, I read scripture to them, pray with them, sing to them, and remind them that God is Light in whom there is no darkness. It is such a sacred time, and I am immensely grateful when I can be present as their spiritual midwife. I am humbled and honored to hold them during this time and to provide a sense of ritual and closure for the families.
So what is God’s invitation to you today?
We all have times when we experience anger, fear, and shame, and we may cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The apostle, Peter, encourages us to, “Cast all [our] anxiety on him, because he cares for [us].” I Peter 5:7
For what are you thirsting today? Know that all things are possible for one who believes. Mark 9:23
For whom do you feel called to pray or minister? Woman, man, behold your charge. God is waiting for your “yes” to do what has been put on your heart to do.
Is God inviting you to forgive yourself or someone else; to ask for forgiveness? As we forgive, so are we forgiven.
What do you need to declare “finished” in you life today? A negative habit? Listening to the voice of the inner critic? Do you need to set a boundary regarding someone who is taking advantage of you? The past is finished. Today is a new day.
Great Lover of us all, into your hands we commend our spirits. Take our worry, take our pain, take our selfishness, anger, fear, and shame. Transform them in the light of your love. May we be the sweet fragrance of your love in a hurting world. May our goodheartedness and cheerfulness be as a healing balm for those who are suffering, that today, this day, we may all walk in the awareness of the paradise of your love.