I am on call. 24 straight hours at the hospital. 15 of which I am the only chaplain in the entire 900-bed hospital.
I get paged to the ICU. A family is requesting a chaplain. I find the nurse and the she tells me that the family is ready to take their husband, father, son, brother, uncle off of life support…and they are gathered in the conference room waiting for me. Waiting for me?! I walk in to a mother, her 3 children, niece, sister and mother-in-law weeping. Some are holding each other while others turn inward holding themselves. I sit down and wait. The woman looks at me and I quietly say, “my name is Tiffany, I am the chaplain.” Cries get louder and the gasping gets deeper. I am the truth that just walked in…the truth that they do not want to accept. The truth that their husband, father or family member is about to die. It’s about to end and there is no more escaping or prolonging it. The chaplain is here. It’s time.
I share eyes and hold hands while they cry out. I hand them tissues. Get them water. Minutes later, as the grieving subsides I say, “Can you tell me what kind of guy Sam is?” They start chiming in, one by one, practically interrupting each other, which leads to laughter and joy. Laughter and joy over what a wonderful man Some of the laughter as the beginning of a sentence ends in tears by the end of the sentence. After some time of sharing, it turned quiet. Silent. Then the wife looked at me. Her eyes desperately searching for an answer when she asks, “how do we do this? Tell us what to do.“
ME? I am instantly shocked by their dependence on me. I’m thinking, “I’ve never done this before.” I take a moment and wait until all of the jabbering in my mind stops. And then I just tell them that we are going to make sure it is done peacefully. Peace for Sam and peace for everyone in that room that Sam is leaving behind. I also tell them that there is no rush and we are going to do it together. I ask them if they have each had time to talk with Sam. It was time to say everything they wanted to say to him….whether it be thank you’s, I love you’s, and/or goodbyes. I told them that some of them may want to go in alone, and others may need to go together…regardless, it was important that everything they needed to say had been said. Cries got louder and gasps got deeper…from what I said…again. I felt the lump in my throat. I took a couple deep breaths…I couldn’t cry. Not yet. They need strength, and a calm presence.
Then, we talked about prayers and Scripture reading. They requested several things, but Sam’s little brother Tim was on his way. They say Tim is going to take it the hardest. They want to wait until Tim gets there. The weeping continues. I need to step out. Collect my thoughts. Gather the prayers. Gather myself.
As I’m walking out Sam’s sister is standing there and just looks at me. I ask her what she thought the family, and Sam, needed in order to experience this peacefully. Her eyes well up as they stare at me. She says, “Sam hasn’t been going to church. He used to go. But since he’s been so sick, he couldn’t go. I…don’t know what to think.” I sense her question. This is a big question. And a big moment for her. I look directly at her and say, “Faith is a condition of our heart, not any action we do or do not do.” And she says, “I just can’t do this peacefully unless I know where he’s going….(tears, lots of them).” I reassure her that Sam loved his family well and expressed a faith most of this life and that God is loving. I told her that I trusted completely that God was ready to receive him. With a deep sigh of relief she said, “oh, good. That’s what I believe too, but I didn’t know what you believed. I wasn’t sure. Thank you so much.” She then returned back to be with her family and I told her I’d return soon. As I started to walk down the hall tears instantly filled my eyes. Their grief, their questions…their dependence on me. God was using me in powerful ways that I am inadequate for. In that moment it all came rushing over me. I took a couple of deep breaths. I cannot cry. No. Not now. If I start crying, it’ll be the kind of cry that leaves a mark on my face for a while. That is not what the family needs. I sensed the emotional family needed strength and a calm presence. I give myself a little peptalk, and pray under my breath as I walk down to my office.
I return and spend over an hour with them as they say goodbye, turn off the machines, do final paperwork and ask me to pray. I laugh and cry with them. At some point, they no longer needed the guidance…they found their rhythm and what felt right for them and it was beautiful. I stayed present with each of them…in very different ways…simultaneously. It was pretty incredible.
And then, all of a sudden you realize it’s done. It’s just done. Sam is no longer alive. After all the necessary steps were complete the wife looks at me and says, “now what?” I say that if they have all seen and been with Sam as much as they needed that they do the crazy, strange, devastating thing of gathering their belongings and walking out of the hospital. They go home. One less person. The one less person being a man who gave your life meaning and love and joy. It feels odd, unnatural, unbelievable…yet, that’s the next step. “No”, they say…”Prayer.” They want prayer again. I can do that…
After prayer I tell them what an honor it was to be with them during that time, that they had a beautiful, loving family and that I would be praying for these next few hours, days, weeks and months. Then, I left. Just like that. It’s this crazy instantly-deep connection I share as I walk alongside strangers in one of the hardest moments of their lives…and then it’s over. I leave. Never to see or talk with them again. It’s a strange, unfamiliar and emotional experience.
As I reflect on it more, I see just how little they are actually expecting from me. They may think they want me to guide every step…but really, they want me to help them find the place in themselves that tell them what needs to be said or done. At first, it felt like they were clinging to me, asking me to show them the way. The way of doing something I have never done, or ever even seen, in my life! But, then they let go of me and hung onto each other, onto Sam and onto God. We made it. Together. And it was beautiful.