There is death, and then there is death. There are the deaths that result from a lifetime of illnesses, or perhaps a deadly disease that finally has taken its toll on a body, or simply from old age. These deaths seem to make sense to us. Then there are the deaths that just don’t seem to make sense: newborn babies dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; a 29-year-old mother of three dying of cancer; a healthy young man dying suddenly of a brain aneurysm; a boy dying from brain injuries after a serious car accident. These deaths are deeply tragic and shocking. And hospital chaplains at busy hospitals see them every day, often attending those deaths.
While I was talking to one of the attending chaplains at Yale-New Haven Hospital, a chaplain who shares some of the cancer units with me, he said that someone asked him once how he handled “the daily dose of death.” Although death is a natural and frequent occurrence in life, it’s not natural for most people to see it that often. And chaplains who are summoned to every death in a hospital while on call see even more than the nurses and doctors in various units, since we cover the whole hospital.
How do we handle the daily dose of death? It is not easy. It is not easy to start every weekday morning by listening to the litany of on-call reports, during which several deaths are reported. It goes like this: “4 p.m. Called to the bedside of dying patient. Offered comfort to family and prayers for patient. 8 p.m. Called to return after patient died. Offered commendatory prayers. 10 p.m. Called to fetal demise. Offered comfort to parents and rite of naming and blessing for child. 11 p.m. Called to MICU to offer commendatory prayers for dead patient. No family present. 12:30 a.m. Called to Emergency Department to respond to suicide. Stayed with grieving friends for three hours. 4 a.m. called to NICU to respond to death. Offered Buddhist prayer of commendation. Chinese family members present. Did not want chaplain.” And so on and so on.
Sometimes we handle it with gallows humor. Some people may handle it by withdrawing emotionally from the patients and their families, at least until they feel recovered from the repeated exposure to death. Some of us lie in bed at night, seeing the faces of the dead or their grieving families and trying various meditation or prayer techniques to free ourselves from this secondary grief.
The truth is, we often have peaceful responses to the more expected deaths (other people’s, anyway!)* because we do recognize it as a natural, expected occurrence in life, and many believers also have deep convictions about afterlife and the disposition of their spirits or souls. Most Christian patients and chaplains that I know express a secure faith in God’s existence, God’s loving kindness toward all, and a heavenly existence after their bodily death.
Nevertheless, some deaths jar us, and there does not seem to be a rhyme or reason to it. Certain patients “worm” their way into our hearts, as our experienced chaplain termed it, and their deaths are very hard to accept. Our feelings of powerlessness predominate at these times.
Actually, a chaplain’s feeling of powerlessness is pretty common as we don’t offer any magic pill or surgery when we visit with someone. We–and they–often don’t know what they want from us. We work in a mysterious realm between their mind and soul, our mind and soul, and God or Spirit. And we cannot really see the effects of our work in the same way that other people do: doctors can see whether their surgery was successful; nurses can see that they relieved pain or noticed an allergy and changed a medication. All chaplains have is the occasional assurance from patients or family members that they appreciated the visit.
Feelings of powerlessness are not supposed to be bad things for spiritual practitioners; they are supposed to aid in our spiritual development, our acceptance, our humility, our compassion, and so on. And I suppose they do. I suppose that chaplains’ frequent exposure to death can lead to an “attunement” with the spiritual realm. (That’s a favorite word in my CPE group when we discuss connecting with patients.)
The daily dose can also lessen one’s fear of death. I read from a secondhand source that, in the early years of their training, Buddhist monks are exposed to dead bodies by surprise repeatedly until they get over the shock of death and accept it as commonplace and the way of all flesh.
A chaplain I discussed this with said that we need to counteract the frequent exposure to death with a frequent exposure to life–our life–especially in playing. I love to play and have several ways of playing, but they haven’t been that life-giving these past 5 weeks. I am hoping to have a wonderful, fun-filled Fourth of July trip in Boston with my daughter the next two days and to come back to the hospital refreshed and ready for another 24 on-call.
Only six weeks and six 24-hour shifts to go. Here’s a poem I found by Hafiz, the 14-century Sufi Muslim mystic, that I hope will get me through this. It’s called, appropriately,
OUT OF THIS MESS
To be humble
So that God does not
Have to appear to be so stingy.
O pray to be honest,
So that the Beloved is never miscast
As a great cruel miser.
I know you have a hundred complex cases
Against God in court,
But, never mind, wayfarer,
Let’s just get out of this mess
And pray to be loving and humble
So that the Friend will be forced to reveal
*See, there’s that gallows humor!