Many moons ago, while I was doing my counseling training, I had the most wonderful opportunity to work, one day a week for two years, as an intern under the direction of a caring hospice chaplain in a small hospital located in one of the poorest areas of a larger city. My assignment was the oncology wing and, as my mother had recently died of cancer, I felt a deep level of empathy for these patients and their families.
“Privileged” is not a word worthy enough to describe how I felt at the end of the day, when I had been given a gift of precious “last minutes” with ones about to leave this world.
My chaplain was clear when he stressed that, to be “present” with someone, whatever their circumstance, you had to be there for their agenda, not yours. The Greek word for “counselor” is paraclete, “one who walks alongside.” Not someone who pushes from behind, or who runs ahead and tells them what to do. This was a lesson well learned.
When it was possible to visit for a few minutes alone, very few patients wanted to talk about dying. For most it was just a matter of days or hours, and they were at peace. They either had a belief in Heaven, or they felt they would just be falling into an eternal sleep. Their concerns were for their family members and other loved ones they knew would struggle with their death. At times the dying would share regrets of a broken relationship with a child, or a desire that they could see their family members reconcile.
Some wanted to tell me about loved ones already “gone ahead” and how much they longed to see them. Others, in the very last hours of dying, would speak directly to the loved ones they could “see” by their bedsides. I sat quietly in tears one afternoon as I watched an elderly lady reach up her wrinkled and terribly thin arms as she called out “mama, mama.”
While the family members quietly waiting around the bedside had many questions for me as to whether there was life after death, or fear of life on earth without this loved one, the dying ones had only concern for their families.
Kerry Egan, a young hospice chaplain in Massachusetts, has written a good article on My Faith: What People Talk About When They Die. She writes, “We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully – just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.”