Friday, June 29, 2012

It's A Dead Issue: Honoring Life

Went into that good-night
Passed away
End of the race
Bought the big one
Bit the dust
Gone home
Bumped off
Checked out
Crossed over
Got their wings

These are only a few of the words and phrases used to talk about death without using the word dead.

No, this isn’t starting to seem like an uplifting blog. I hope indeed it doesn’t seem morbid!

Working in a hospital the terms we often use for conditions are specifically descriptive and clinical. The hospital staff use the term expired as in “The patient expired.” Much like with the phrases above there is truth. Somehow those phrases haven’t ever sat right with me.

Many of these terms make me think someone is trying to lighten the grief or make death all right when maybe that isn’t possible. Is it all right to lose your 90 year old beloved grandparent solely because of their age? Is it all right to lose a loved one from a chronic illness because their suffering is over? For me these words try to soften what truly cannot be softened.


Death is stark, not light nor funny and ultimately one experience we will all share. My perspective is we cannot make death all right because the person is of long age, ill nor any other reason. Death takes a relationship and alters it forever. The person may seem present in many ways yet you are not able to even share a cup of tea.

I like to frame death like the following example:

He was an amazing man and will be missed in a way no one else can understand *and* yet I am grateful he is no longer suffering.

There is another side of death that many are not willing to mention. That is the relief you might experience because of the relationship you had was not one that brought goodness.

Someone said to me a few weeks ago that in her faith tradition a person is inspired and then when they die they expire. I’m still trying to reconcile the word expire used in a different context.

Theology and beliefs also come for consideration as well. But, I believe your physical body must die before what you believe about the afterlife can begin.

My feelings about this subject are my own and I do not expect anyone else to agree. I do think that to say a person has died marks with a word the stark transition that has occurred. In that I also think it gives us a beginning to honor a life.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Safe Side of the Bed

New Chaplain Students

Last week’s blog was about how my patients in treatment and active follow up do not have a summer vacation.

Our hospital’s summer period offers training for chaplains, faith leaders, and lay people as well as future MD’s, RN’s etc. Many faith traditions require the C.P.E. [clinical pastoral education] program we offer. This past week was the beginning for our summer program. People come to this program for many reasons and often leave transformed differently than they initially expected. They are in for anything BUT a summer vacation!

Ten people come together for 10 weeks in this intensive immersion program. There are no restrictions of age or faith tradition to participate. The goal is to learn how to be present with those in crisis, illness, suffering and celebration as well as reflect on their own reactions and feelings. They respond to all who come through the doors as a fellow human; that’s the only assumption allowed!

As a mentor, not supervisor, I think I have the best of all positions during this time. I get to know each of the students and watch their interactions as the program begins and progresses. Many a thesis paper has been written on group dynamics. I love to watch the dynamic unfold every summer. Who is a leader? Is this person leading from a place of strength or fear? Who is quiet? Are they quiet because they absorb every detail and nuance or is he or she paralyzed with fear entering this program? There are too many emotions and dynamics to begin to reflect here, that’s for sure!

The CPE students are oriented by the permanent staff as well as the chaplain residents who are leaving after their own 10 month program. This process takes just three days. On the night of that third day the first summer student in the rotation takes the house pager and is alone overnight. In the morning we all gather to hear the report of every pager call after 5:00pm the previous day. We do this so each of the daytime assigned Chaplains can follow up.

At the end of the report this past Friday morning the group burst into clapping. Were they relieved for the first who had a relatively common call night? Were they clapping from nervousness thinking about how their own first night might unfold? Ahhhhh, that is for the student and supervisor to talk about.

I am always fascinated and aware of how amazing the people are who come to spend their summer vacation in our academic program. Often as clinical staff we are aware of our position being one of the “safe side” of the bed. That means we are not a patient vulnerable to the medical processes.

It was a very long time ago when I visited my first patient. I will never forget the care and wisdom my mentor Rev. Konrad Kaltenbach offered me. I attempt to pay back his gift every summer.

May each of our summer students have the courage to discover their weaknesses and acknowledge the strengths yet undiscovered. For the CPE students, as they begin, they surely do not feel there is a safe side of the bed!