(This is the fourth in my series, ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy. Read other posts in the series here.)
“He then greeted Death as an old friend and went with him gladly, departing this life as equals.”
Sometimes I forget how different my perspective is from that of most “normal” people. Then my roommate asks me, “How was work last night?” I reply, “Not too bad. Just two deaths and a trauma.” She laughs and I look at her quizzically. “Sorry,” she says, “but you’re the only person I know who would call two deaths in one shift ‘not too bad.’ Your job is so weird.” I guess she has a point. Working in a hospital, encountering death on such a routine basis, is more than a little weird.
The above quote and image are from The Tale of the Three Brothers, a story within the story by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book of the series (which was split into two movies, the first of which featured the image above). When I started writing this post, that quote was the first thing that came to mind. I have watched some of the people I meet in the hospital seem to greet death as an old friend. Perhaps their lives were so long or their illnesses so taxing that the end of earthly life came as a relief. It is a strange kind of beautiful to see a person leave in this way, having said all she or he wanted to say, both him/her and his/her loved ones at peace with the inevitable. Sometimes the person dying will ask me to say a prayer for his/her family, entrusting them to God. Sometimes the reverse happens. Even at the very end of life, so much is about the way we love and take care of one another. When a patient has no family nearby — or, as is sometimes the case, when a family cannot bear to watch the dying process and chooses not to be in the room — a nurse will often call for the chaplain. “I just thought she shouldn’t be alone,” he might say, and if the night is not too busy, I might get to hold her hand until her last breath, as she passes peacefully from this life to the next.
This is not always the case, of course. My ministry too often involves comforting families when death comes suddenly, perhaps violently, to one they love. Rather than an old friend, they would characterize death more as a thief, an enemy, robbing them of the years they should have had left with that person. They respond with anger, understandably — anger at life, at the person driving the car, at cancer, at God, at the hospital, at me because I represent the last two. It took me a long time to learn not to take it personally. Now I know that many times my job is simply to listen to their anger, with patience and without judgment, and to hold onto the faith they throw away in the moment, knowing they will want it back later. I am grateful for the times when others have done the same for me when I walked through grief.
I often wonder whether my secondhand familiarity with death will make things any easier for me when my own time comes. Much will depend on how it comes, I suppose, and I have no way of knowing that, nor would I want to know. It could be a long illness and a peaceful passing, or a violent, sudden death, or anything in between. We all know on some intellectual level that we will die, but we continue living as if life will last forever, as if death is something that happens only to other people. I suppose we have to do so, as a way of coping. How could we live every day knowing — really knowing — that we will die? Even though I have seen so much death, I am usually able to keep it at a distance. But every now and then, for just a moment, it comes near.
I’ll never forget the first time it happened. I was still a chaplain resident, and a terminally ill patient had just died at the Hospice House. As was tradition, his body was covered in a homemade quilt and a song that he had chosen was played over the sound system as the funeral home attendants wheeled the gurney out to the waiting hearse. Staff members lined the hall as a show of respect, and I joined them. When they folded up the wheels of the gurney to move the body into the hearse, it hit me: That will be me one day. It wasn’t just an intellectual fact; for a brief second it was Truth. And just as quickly, it was gone.
What I felt most strongly in that moment wasn’t, as I might have expected, fear. Instead, I felt a sense of connection to the man who had died, to the staff members lining the hall, to the funeral home attendants, to every other patient and family member at the Hospice House that day, to everyone who ever lived or will ever live. We don’t know how or when, but we all die. No matter what huge differences may separate us, we have that in common. It binds me to every one of those people in a way, and also to Jesus, who I believe experienced death so that we would not have to face it alone, and rose again so we would know that death is not how the story ends. That is what I remember every time I hold the hand of someone nearing his or her last breath, whether or not I say it aloud. We are the same. I am with you, as far as I can go. God is with you all the way. You are not alone. Even in death, not one of us is alone.