Death and Dying: a Chaplain’s Journey

In last week’s “The Writing Challenge” post, I asked readers which of these book-length projects jazzed them up. The response was enthusiastic and most readers favored:

–Exploring an  interfaith (Christian-Hindu) marriage

–Service  as a UNC Hospitals chaplain resident with a specialty in death and dying

Though I polled the readers in this case–I know that every writer should begin the first draft writing for herself or himself (see once again see Stephen King’s “On Writing”). The second draft could and should be written with the “study door open,” keeping the ideal reader in mind.

Given the readers’ feedback, I wanted to share something I wrote last month, after a dear friend had extensive surgery at UNC Hospitals and was subsequently diagnosed with stage 4 B uterine cancer. I provided pastoral care post surgery as her shocked body began its healing and her spirit began its processing. After my visit with her, my voice was clear, and here’s what I crafted that evening at home:

I had mixed feelings as I shuffled through the automatic doors of UNC Memorial Hospital. My emotions were the same as they had always been entering these doors as a chaplain: empowerment (someone needed me) and dread (someone needed me).

My inner compass directed me toward the Department of Pastoral Care (anything else would have felt unnatural).  I knew that if I began there, paused, and remembered my training, I’d be equipped to move forward.

From there, I took the elevator to Anderson hallway (I-40 as we used to call it). Anderson is the secret back stretch of tiles running the length of the hospital. Frequented by confident surgeons in green scrubs and worried families in days-old clothes, Anderson is nothing like the hustle and bustle of the welcoming, main corridor with its greeters and volunteers. Instead, the hall and its adjacent ICUs and operating rooms are overflowing with hurried surgeons and vulnerable families.

From the hallway, I entered the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU), smelled the same. It was the same stench I scrubbed off as when each day ended and I wanted to wash away the pain of death.

My friend was doing very well following her surgery–despite the longterm prognosis that comes with stage 4 B uterine cancer. Her surgeons had done what they could. They were the unfortunate messengers of fatal war waged in her body. Sitting with her in the dark ICU room, my muscle memory poised me for holding suffering and offering prayer.

I left my friend’s SICU bedside feeling defeated as I made the return journey on Anderson. Walking past the surgical waiting rooms, I looked at the sober faces and said silent prayers. A part of me wanted to haunt the halls just as I had 36 of 52 weeks I was on call, unable to sleep and absorbing the loneliness of a dark hospital with so many needs.

Instead, I shuffled through the automatic doors of UNC Memorial Hospital, my emotions the same: relief (I had somehow completed my care) and helplessness (there was so much more care to be offered).

Editor’s note: as of May 3, 2011, this post was (very generously, thank you) linked to the Huffington Post’s Death and Dying page as a link from Digg, Delicious, and Google blogsearch. Thanks, everyone, for reading and making this a prominent link! The more we all share on our death and dying experiences, the more glimpses we have into this difficult process that each of us must encounter at some point in our lives.


2 thoughts on “Death and Dying: a Chaplain’s Journey”

  • This is a powerful piece. I felt like I was going into the hospital with you. What happened in the hospital room? What made you feel defeated? How did you transition from defeat to relief and helplessness upon exiting? I want to read more!

    • Wow–thanks for reading, Ellen! I’m honored by your interest and enthusiasm–and I’m inspired to write more! Stay tuned …

      Thanks again,

Leave a Reply