Monday, February 25, 2008

Do Not Be Afraid

During one visit, Bob admitted to me that he was afraid of dying. Like many people of faith, he occasionally had doubts about heaven and eternal life because those concepts defy rational thought, but he had trouble voicing those doubts. After all, people of faith are supposed to be sure.

The first thing I did was assure Bob that he was not alone in having these thoughts. And it didn’t mean he had lost his faith. I reminded him of how Jesus prayed in the garden before his arrest, a prayer wrenched from the same fear and doubt Bob was experiencing.

That seemed to bring him some comfort, but he also said he was afraid of the pain and discomfort he might experience in the dying process. He knew as the COPD worsened it would become more difficult to breathe. In fact, there did come a time when he could no longer sing because he could not get enough breath. But if someone started “Precious Lord” I could see him mouth the words.

Bob’s last few days were spent in ICU, where medications helped with the painful process of dying, but it also numbed him to human interactions. That didn’t keep friends and family away, however, and the afternoon he died, the whole family was gathered. Everybody took turns standing at the head of his bed to talk to him or sing a song. I stood at the foot of his bed and waited.

Then it happened.

There was a hush in the room and I looked over at Bob and saw his spirit lift from his body. It was so quick, I almost convinced myself I didn’t see it, but the image of his smiling face is imprinted on my mind. The deep lines of fear and anxiety had been smoothed by the most beatific smile.

When I was able to share that with his widow later, she said it brought her great comfort to know that he was happy.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Gift That Was Bob

When I was working in the hospital, there were many instances when I felt like I was benefiting more from visits than the patients were, and my visits with “Bob” were definitely in that category.

In addition to the beautiful music that he so freely shared, I was also privy to his strong faith and unwavering trust. He never asked why God did this to him. The only “why” question Bob asked was why God didn’t just take him. Why was he lingering for so long?

As I have said before, I don’t think God is that actively involved in our dying. I know that many people believe that our day and time of death is preordained, but it is not a concept I have ever been able to embrace. Not that there is anything wrong with it. It’s just not part of my theology.

So I couldn’t answer Bob on that level. But I could help him see all the ways his life continued to be a blessing to many people. He was at the hospital so many times in a two year period; I think every employee there knew him or his family. And everyone was touched in some way.

His life “graced” our hospital in so many ways, and the God part in all of this is the grace.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Would The Real Chaplain Please Stand

When the television show, ER, added the character of a chaplain to the cast, I was delighted. Finally, I thought, more people are going to see what it is that a chaplain does, before they are faced with their own health crisis, or the crisis of a loved one, and meet a chaplain for the first time.

At first I liked this new character and could relate to her somewhat offbeat and irreverent approach to the job, noting that she made that important distinction between spirituality and religion. Not everyone gets that, so I thought the writers had really done their homework before writing this character.

That confidence faltered a bit when the story line shifted to being more about her relationship with the doctor than her job. I was disappointed at this focus shift, but the little bits in story lines about her job still rang true for the most part, so I continued to cheer for her.

The cheering faded during a recent episode when the chaplain fled from a patient who was asking her for forgiveness. The patient, who was a doctor, had worked in a prison as an executioner. In his later years, he came to regret what he had done and set out to seek forgiveness, believing that his deeds were so terrible there was no way God could forgive him unless he somehow made restitution first.

Driven by the need to assuage his guilt, this doctor spent a number of years seeking out the families of the people he executed to offer a gesture of restitution. Sometimes it was through a gift of money, and other times offering some other kind of assistance. Still his guilt overwhelmed him, and now he was on his deathbed, terrified that he had no hope of salvation.

The chaplain was called in to help this man find peace, but she couldn’t do it. Instead of entering the place where he was and giving him the assurance that God could forgive him and would accept his atonement, she tried to counter the man’s need for forgiveness. He finally screamed at her to get out, and she fled.

Of course, this conflict added to the drama of the show, but in real life, the chaplain would need to put aside her personal theology and give the patient what he or she needs to be at peace. If that means going against a personal belief, so be it.

I learned early on in my training that it isn’t about me and what I believe. It is about the patient and what he or she believes. I can share my theology, and have done so at times, but more often I am working within the bounds of a patient’s theology. And I firmly believe that is the way it should be.