When I try to describe my work as a hospital chaplain I sometimes fall back on the line from the film “The Sixth Sense”: “I see dead people.” Not all the time, granted, but more than I'd ever seen before in my life.
Death and dying are a natural part of life, and yet most of us are far removed from it; I know I was. Before I started this work a year ago, the only dead person I'd ever seen was my father. My time at a suburban hospital has shown me that death and dying come in as many forms as there are people and lifestyles. As someone told us in a hospital lecture on dying, "People pretty much die as they lived."
People with dysfunctional families often die amid tumult. At times, family members are estranged, and the remaining parent and adult children may hurl angry words at one another over the lifeless corpse, as we hospital chaplains try to offer some form of comfort or coming together amid the flying barbs.
"I'm the bereaved one!" shouted one widow at the chaplain who showed compassion toward the same woman's grown daughter—who had just lost her father. We leave these encounters shaking our heads in disbelief at the discord amid the family members—in both life, and in death.
Then there are the moments such as one I recently witnessed. I received a call to be with a family that had just removed their mother from mechanical life support. I felt nervous approaching their room and when I entered I saw two adult men and one woman, all in tears, around the bed of their unconscious mother. The daughter tenderly stroked her mother's forehead, and the sons each held one of her hands, which they caressed in between bending to plant it with a kiss. "I love you, Mom," each said at varying times.
I walked in and put my hand on the daughter's shoulder, gently rubbing it in acknowledgement of her sorrow. "Hi, I'm Toni, one of the chaplains," I introduced myself. "How are you holding up?"
One of the brothers looked up from his mother's hand and said: "We're OK. She's getting what she wants. She wouldn't have wanted to go to a nursing home."
"Yeah," chimed in the other brother. "But she wouldn't want a lot of fuss from us right now."
And then he looked at his mother, her face somewhat contorted as she struggled for breath without assist from a machine, and he said, "But we're getting the last word, Mom. We're making a fuss over you!"
And his brother and sister broke into smiles and laughed. "Yeah, she likes things simple but we're treating her special now."
There was so much love in their room that it overshadowed the pain of her dying. The camaraderie and teasing that existed in the family in life, continued in death. The siblings proceeded to show me pictures of their mother in better days, and recounted how she had enjoyed their last family dinner and then, the next day, had a stroke and now here she was. I said some words and prayers of comfort and left them to hold vigil with their mother, who died a few hours later. And I was left with the afterglow of their love, not the pain of their loss.
The first time I assisted a family in losing a parent, I put on a long face as I thought that was expected of me as a chaplain—to share, and feel, the family's pain. My supervisor, with me at the time, later took me aside and told me not to do that. "You're there to be a centering force for them, not to take on their pain," said my supervisor, a longtime chaplain. I was taken aback as I thought I'd appear unfeeling if I didn't look as though I, too, suffered along with them. Over time, I've come to see the wisdom of my supervisor's words.
The time both before and after the death of a loved one is so intense that people experience the full spectrum of emotions from laughter to grief, from joy to despair; it is as if people are transported to a special realm where stages of life overlap and the regular boundaries separating life events melt away, leaving people streaking across decades and back again in just a few minutes. As chaplain, I serve as their witness—one grounded in the present to bring them back to this moment, being their anchor as it were.
So where is God in all this? Well, it is all about love and God is in the love. It is in the gratitude the dying feel for the good they've had in life, and that their loved ones feel for the memories in knowing and loving them. God is in the tenderness the children of a dying parent show at the parent's bedside. It is in the graciousness the families offer me—a stranger—who appears in their most difficult moments. Amid their own pain, they treat me with kindness and gratitude. God is in how we treat one another—in life and in death.
When I say, "I see dead people," I see much more than that. I see the reflection of God in the actions of people made in God's image. In you, I see the divine. And I hope I will show you the same when you come to comfort me.