Tag Archives: Chaplaincy

Exhaling into death

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It occurred to me yesterday morning that I have been fearful of the role of full-time hospice chaplaincy for two main reasons.

The first is that I thought I might get burnt out ministering mostly to folks who are actively dying and their families, that the nature of unavoidable death without the affirmation of life might not be there. That without the balance, I would eventually tip over and absorb too much of the grief and not enough of the life.

If you are on my hospice list then you are most likely dying.  Some folks get better with hospice care and no longer qualify for it, but mostly, folks die.

Here is the other point. Frankly I didn’t have confidence that my spunky little self was cut out for the solemnness of the gig.  I met a ton of ministers and others who felt called to hospice while I was in seminary and CPE, and they tended to be very peaceful, calming, and reverent.  I am mostly irreverent and have a quirky sense of humor.  I am also naturally charismatic and sometimes find it difficult to tamper that gift down. I don’t mean to say that I am all that and a bag of chips, but I have that funny personality that is highly interested in others, connects easily to strangers and for the most part, is authentic.  What you see is what you get.

I didn’t think that my calling was to hospice.  I figured it was to helping people with addictions, and homelessness, and hospital type stuff.  I love hospital chaplaincy and did well in training with the cases where it was messy.  Messy with bells and whistles going off.  Messy with theological issues.  Messy with emotional responses.

This is what I discovered.

In the hospital, death is there and is often sudden.  Unexpected.  As chaplain you need to have your spiritual tanks filled because you respond to some deep stuff. People are plugged into machines, the heart is monitored, beeps and alarms go off. People rush in and rush out trying to save the patient. The main purpose of the medical team is curative,  everybody jumps in at the code to save the life and the chaplain holds the sacred space.

A 17-year-old wraps their car around a tree and the family comes to the bedside, faced with issues of taking him off life support or organ donation.  The baby’s heart isn’t working and he has to be medevaced to Children’s hospital.  You are called to take someone to see their loved one in the morgue after death from an overdose and you lead them to a cold room, generally far away from the rest of the hospital, and generally underground.   Shock is the response to sudden and unexpected death.  It is surreal at times.

Death comes unexpectedly and on the emotional intensity scale of 1-10, 10 being full on, you give spiritual care and support, holding the sacred space for the family and the patients.  It is a fast inhale, like when you are being startled and you quickly hold your breath for dear life, hoping death will not take it.   And sometimes you go from emergency to emergency and you have to be there, one patient emergency after another.  All of you, present and with The Divine because you are the symbol of the sacred in the moment.  It is exhausting, but I was good it.  I can hold my breath for a very long time.

In hospice, it is like a long and cleaning exhale.  Death is not unexpected, it is unavoidable, for the most part.  There are folks who struggle with accepting death, their own or the death their loved one.  Hospice is provided only if there is a medical indication that curative medicine will no longer help.  To be on hospice you have to have a terminal diagnosis with death imminent, generally less than 6 months.   Hospice is when death has knocked the door has opened.

And with the exhale, it seems that the tension of intensity , the holding your breath against sudden illness and unexpected death,  is released. The emotions are still there, but not as tense.  The grieving process has begun.  The emotion has moved from the shock of not accepting that death has come,  to sometimes welcoming the relief from suffering that death sometimes brings.

In this place, with patients and their families, my true self can be present without filtering.  Not to say that I was fake in my other work.  I was authentic, but I feared that I could not be authentic in hospice full-time.

Well I seem to be wrong. This calling fits like a glove.

I can hold the space sometimes  and relieve the tension by bringing life back into the room of the dying.  “Tell me a little bit about your loved one” I say.   I can get the story telling started because I am genuinely interested in the life of the patient.  Family members get that. They can feel it  and respond by sharing the life that their loved one lived.  Granted I am still new at this type of gig. But if I can be my true self right from the get go, then I am pretty optimistic about it.  All things will sugar out with time. I am hopeful this calling will get sweeter.

 

 

Growing Edges

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I am at the dining room table with folders, cup of tea, scripture, a couple of pens and my music going. This seems to be a space where I can get the writing done.  The project this week is to gather the paperwork together for a Clinical Pastoral Education Equivalency.  To be certified by the Association of Professional Chaplain one needs to have a Master of Divinity degree, four units of CPE- that’s the clinical pastoral ed thing- and then 2000 hours as a paid chaplain.    I have completed the MDiv, have two accredited CPE units done with a third starting up at the end of May and one year of field study that should qualify for the equivalency unit.  You are allowed one of the four units to be an equivalency.  So there are the details.

The bigger picture is that I have been going over what I did in chaplaincy work my second year of seminary.   You have to do field work as part of the requirements for the degree and most seminarians do their year at a church because they are following a call to ordination as a minister within some sort of denomination.  I am called to be an interfaith chaplain which is a bit different and so I did a field study placement as a chaplain intern at Newton Wellesley Hospital through Harvard Divinity School.   Now I am looking back to see what my goals were then and how I attained them, or changed them or found out I needed some more work in certain areas.  We call that our “growing edges”.  God I hate that term.

Seems like every field; ministry, business, psychology, all comes with terminology.  And every association or grouping of folk have their rules and regulations that from the society for which they congregate.  I get that.  I get that we form groups with like-minded folks and have rules by which we play.  But sometimes the rules become its own game.  And I don’t like that either.  I want to get to the actual doing of stuff, working with people, rather than getting stuck in the details.

It is not that I don’t need more training.  I do and I hope to remain teachable and open to learning more about the art of chaplaincy and pastoral care.  But the whole paperwork thing drives me buggers.  To the point where I will do almost anything to get around what it is I should be doing.  I have been know to clean the bathroom instead of writing the paper.  I also just took up running again, not to get into shape, but most likey to avoid the paperwork.  If I run myself tired I won’t have so much angst about the paperwork.  And it is really not that bad.   Not like a theological systematics paper  for Prof. Heim or a Christology paper for Prof. Valentine.

And here is what I know about myself.  I get all caught up in the angst of getting the paperwork done, rather than just sitting down and answering the questions and writing the papers.  Nothing has changed much there.  I would rather blog, with the hope that by clearing my voice and opening up the flow of writing, that the writing I need to submit will come easier.   And that my friends, all comes down to being judged as being acceptable by how I write and what I say.   Old wounds from Jr. High School where I learned I am dyslexic and became fearful that what I wrote was wrong because I never understood what exactly people were asking me to do.

OK, so stepping back, I have a folder of work I did for a field study through Harvard.  They thought it was good enough to pass me through.  I guess my “growing edge” is to accept that perhaps what I did should count for something.