Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
“A chaplain? What do you even do?” someone asks.
Usually I answer with the checklist stuff, because it sounds purposeful.
“Death and bereavement. Viewings. Living wills. Next-of-kin search. Find a surrogate. Bless babies. End-of-life support. Comfort families in the waiting room. Respond to a Code Blue. Pray.”
And then I say, “Mostly, I talk with sick people.”
To be truthful, the to-do list stuff is easier because it has tangible goals. It has an official air, with a definitive landing. But the talking part is weird and sloppy. It’s like slow dancing with a stranger.
Dialogue has no rules about it, which sounds romantic, but imagine two people trying to dance for the first time with their shoelaces jammed up in knots, and the patient expects me to a be a professional when half the time I’m learning on the fly as I adjust to the patient’s feet. It sounds cute but it’s clumsy.
Imagine trying to start a conversation when:
Case 1 — A young man drives off a bridge. The paramedics find a gunshot wound in his side. It’s possible he had been running from a drug bust gone bad. His entire family is notified; the man dies; the family is screaming at the top of their lungs in the waiting room.
Case 2 — A woman’s husband has just died. She’s handling it well. She even makes a few jokes next to her husband’s body; she’s had time to process his dying. But she’s more upset that her husband’s family is trying to grab at his will, his wealth, his house. The woman asks me what I can do.
Case 3 — An ex-convict has a body cast from head to toe. He believes that God might be punishing him. He confesses that he’s killed a few people; he wants to kill someone when he’s out of the hospital, but his sickness is changing his mind.
Case 4 — A boy under ten years old has been struck by a car. The boy is injured but recovering. His parents are taking shifts at his bedside; I walk in the room to find his mom. She’s relieved it wasn’t worse, but she’s scared.
Case 5 — An elderly woman is dying. She has no home, her family is out of state, and she thinks she’ll die alone. She asks me how to do a funeral, how to get right with God, how to reconcile with her husband.
Case 6 — A dying elderly man asks if it’s morally right to prolong his own life on an artificial machine.
Case 7 — A woman has had five heart attacks, but she’s not slowing down. Her two daughter are in the room, one who works at a hospital, and they’re both concerned for their mother’s health. She promises she wants to take care of herself, but her daughters are doubtful. They look to me for answers.
Do I tip-toe around their concerns? Or do I offer my opinion? Do I leave it open-ended? Or do I help them work it through?
I ask those questions all the time. I don’t bring a scalpel or a syringe to the room. I only have words; I only bring myself.
And it’s tough. Sometimes I step on toes. I say too much. I move too slow or too quick. I feel like I shouldn’t have been there and I’m making it worse.
At times, when I really pay attention, I know that a miracle is growing. I cherish those moments, when we meet eyes, find that conversational tempo like a heartbeat, and we build something, pieces fitting into a finely layered edifice. You know what I mean: that sudden smooth stream when you and a friend have hit a pocket of chemistry where the talk flows freely, where each word becomes a warm rush of water over cold, weary hands. There’s a graceful motion in lock-step, gliding a little closer to closure, and we untie some of those knots in our shoes, with no expectation but enjoying that tiny slice of time.
And it’s not always the talking, but being. The stillness of listening. A face of sincerity. A laugh at the right time. A nod that says, I hear you, and I’m here.
After stepping on so many toes, I’ve learned there are two things the patients have in common. Two simple denominators that might be woven in all of us.
1) Everyone’s hoping to go home.
2) I’m the constant in these rooms.
It isn’t about me being there, really, but that there’s someone there at all, a constancy in the chaos, a partner arm in arm. The dance comes together when I can help each patient feel like they’re home. Not home in the hospital, but home in their heads, their hearts, their hurts, right now. Everyone needs a familiar rhythm, a friendly face, the landmark that says I’m in a place that I know. That’s the constant in every form of intimacy, really. We’re looking for home in each other, an open door to the dance floor inside. This can be found even in a hospital gown, if someone’s there to dance.