They Say “Don’t Cry” — But So We Must.



It’s a crazy incredible thing to be in a place where people slow down and listen, where they hear your whole story and let you paint your full heart in the air.

I was telling one of my fellow hospital chaplains about life lately, about my health problems and secret panics and suddenly about a billion other things, every humiliating and painful and neurotic moment that had been twitching over for the longest time, and I didn’t realize how much I had bottled up in my neatly wrapped fortress. My chaplain friend never judged, only nodded, never flinched, stayed engaged. She then prayed for me, a really beautiful prayer, like cool water for bruised purple hands. And I wept. A lot. Quietly, but inside, loudly. It was a little embarrassing. But something shifted and settled and became still for a moment, like the leaves of a tree coming together after a strong wind, a momentary painting. I left lighter.

Later I visited a patient who had nearly died from a brain bleed, and when I offered prayer, the nurse grabbed me and said, “Me, too.” I took her to the side, and she whispered, “Cancer. I might have breast cancer, and I’m afraid, chaplain. I’m so damn afraid.” She clenched her teeth and tried not to weep, but I put a quick hand on her shoulder and she wept anyway. She talked. I listened. There was nothing for me to say but to be there. And maybe nothing had changed—except we were made light somehow, and together drew something bigger than us. We drew colors into the gray.

There are still places, I believe, even in a busy and unhearing time, where we can draw free. I hope to meet you there, where we are not okay, but less gray than yesterday. I hope to pray for you, that we become bigger.

— J.S.


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We Say Goodbye, One More Time

When they wheeled him in, the doctors said it was already too late. They put him on an iron lung, and the only thing left to do was let his mother decide on his organs.

He was young, good-looking, tall and strapping, face beat up from meth. His mother had given him countless chances and a free bed, but he had relapsed every time, back to the muse and to back alley corners and then crawling home again. His mom finally kicked him out. Shortly after, he found one of those hideouts to do his meth in peace. He fell down a flight of stairs. Traumatic brain injury. A brawl, possibly. Someone had called an ambulance and left him there.

The only thing the hospital could do was stuff him full of tubes to keep him breathing. There was no brain activity. His head was held by a neck brace the size of an oven and his bed was a mess of angry plastic tentacles, sprouting and twisting in veiny stubborn circles. I could still tell that underneath all the life support, he was a handsome kid.

In the waiting room, his mom kept blaming herself.

Continue reading “We Say Goodbye, One More Time”

The Call That No One Wants.

“Are you Angela, the wife of Tyrone Simmons?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she said, voice rising, searing the phone in my ear. “Yes, chaplain, why?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but your husband Tyrone is here at the hospital.”

I hate this part. I’ve made this call so many times. “Are you able to be here? Will you be with anyone? I’m not sure yet, the doctor can tell you. The doctor can answer that. The doctor will update you. Please drive safely. The doctor will know.”

Angela’s husband Tyrone had been driving to work and he was hit by a truck. Most likely died instantly. He probably never knew.

Continue reading “The Call That No One Wants.”

The Call That No One Wants

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities and identifying factors are altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

“Are you Angela, the wife of Tyrone Simmons?”

“Yes,” she said, voice rising, searing through the phone in my ear. “Yes, chaplain, why?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but Tyrone is here at the hospital.”

I hate this part. He’s here at the hospital. I’ve made this call so many times. Are you able to be here? Will you be with anyone? Please drive safely. 

Tyrone had been driving to work and he was struck by a truck driver. Most likely died instantly. He probably never knew.

I had found Angela’s number by going through her husband’s wallet. It’s a crazy thing, to look inside the wallet of a dead man. You learn a lot from a person’s valuables.  With disposable gloves, I had laid out Tyrone’s belongings on a sheet of paper, each item caked in blood. It’s a clinical process. I feel terrible every time.

The phone number wasn’t written on anything: I had to play detective for a while. This is one of the chaplain’s tasks, to find next-of-kin, to look through every piece of the deceased’s belongings until we had a lead. I chase stories, and underneath them are more stories.

Continue reading “The Call That No One Wants”

Officially Finished Chaplain Residency


Officially graduated from my year long chaplain residency. Pics of our ceremony service. Thank you and love you friends, for your prayers and encouragement. Thank you to the incredible doctors, nurses, surgeons, unit coordinators, PCTs, environmental services, and every other unsung hero of the hospital. On to more chaplaincy and the next chapter!
J.S.

Thanks for Goodbye: To the End of This Adventure.

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.

No one seems prepared to get old, to become doddering and delicate and decrepit, to embrace the inexorable breakdown of our bodies.

The uninitiated are overwhelmed by aging. There’s a drawn-out feud to stay independent even as your body starts acting on its own, and even the healthiest of the elderly can be disgusted at themselves.

When I visit the elderly, some of them are blindsided by the loss of their youth. The middle-aged are, too. They really can’t stomach it. Some are all too sheepish: “You should’ve seen my figure” or “Back in the day I was something” or “I could fight you full strength right now.” I’m certain I’ll be saying the same things, resisting my withering body as it fails me, hissing at every reflection as I banish myself to mashed potatoes and Mylanta.

Some of this is because we’ve tied too much worth and value to youth and attractiveness. I guess I could blame social media, which permanently imprints our youthful selves on a public scale. But really, no one told us how to cope with death.

Even if I told you what I know, I’m not sure that would make it any better.

Your body becomes gross. Your orifices start popping open like loose cargo pants and you start streaming fluids from everywhere. You’ll stink constantly. About one out of six of you will need a colostomy bag. About one out of five you will need dentures. You’ll have permanent aches and pains. You’ll lose time and names and history. You’ll fall, a lot. Your belly won’t leave, but your sex-life might. Your slang will lose style. You’ll lose relevance. You might not enjoy retirement with all your medical bills looming. You’ll be helplessly stuck in a bed for days; you’ll have rows of medicine to keep you pumping; you’ll find a hard surprise in every mirror. And if you retire wealthy, you might be too sick or too depressed to enjoy it, or—well, cancer. And there are all the funerals.

Continue reading “Thanks for Goodbye: To the End of This Adventure.”

Dancing with Shoelaces in Knots.


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?

Continue reading “Dancing with Shoelaces in Knots.”

Love Covers.


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.

I’ve seen love. I mean, pure love. The kind that builds you, that bursts wide open and free, the kind they tell you about, but you were afraid to believe.

A nine-year-old boy comes into the trauma bay with deep, jagged lacerations all over his back. Car accident, roll-over; dad and children nearly ejected, going fifty. His shirt is shredded. His back is really torn up, almost ribbons in several places, blood filling his shorts. He’s fidgeting, squirming, but not from his wounds. He’s trying to sit up, eyes darting, looking for someone. He’s trying to tell something to the paramedics, to the nurses and doctors, to me.

Medicine, he says in a choked whisper, medicine for my sister. She has a new kidney. Medicine.

A second later, his four year old sister is wheeled in—they had been in the same car accident. She’s in shock. Her brother keeps saying, Medicine, for my sister. She needs her kidney medicine.

A nurse replies, “On it. I’m on it, little man.”

I go to the nine year old, pull up a seat, and tell him, “You’re a good brother.”

“Thanks,” he says, finally resting his head. The nurses move around us, not missing a beat, and there’s just me and the kid, eyes locked, his eyes on fire.

“What happened?” I ask him.

Continue reading “Love Covers.”

I Had This Dream, That in Another World, I Was Someone Else, Someone Not Me.


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.

The patient, Jerome, had a trapezoid-shaped hole in his head, and he told me it was from his son.

Jerome’s son had waited in his father’s home until he came back from work, and then he robbed him. Jerome fought back. In the struggle, his son had picked up one of those bright and shiny geode rocks the size of a torso, lifted it to the sky, and wham, in a sick, slicing arc, brought it down into his father’s head. The son was still at large. The father, after six months in physical therapy, still could not get the blood stain out of the carpet in his house. Jerome had lost his job at the oil rig; his wife had left him; his other son took two jobs to pay off the hospital bills, but one evening after dropping off his dad for PT, had been struck by a sixteen-wheeler and died on impact.

“Chaplain, I had this dream,” Jerome said, scratching his old wound, “that in another world, I was someone else, I was someone better, that I have two sons who love me, my wife never left, I was still at the rig with the boys … I had a dream that I was someone not me. It was extraordinary. It was wo—”

He fell asleep, which he told me would happen. His brain needed to shut down when it overworked itself. A few seconds later, he woke up and apologized.

“I had this dream, chaplain. Do you ever dream that you are someone in another world, a different you?”

Continue reading “I Had This Dream, That in Another World, I Was Someone Else, Someone Not Me.”

The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.

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.

No—it doesn’t always work out.

The storm doesn’t always pass.

There isn’t always closure.

Not everything will be all right.

I won’t know why.

There’s a moment in the hospital when our illusion of safety is shattered and the stark reality sets in:

Things won’t change,
they won’t get better,
there won’t be a miracle,
and there won’t be a happily ever after.

It looks like God has exited the building, and that maybe He’s not coming back, and that we will never, ever know why this awful tragedy had to happen.

Babies die. Spouses drop dead at thirty. Diseases take and they take and they take. Prayers go unanswered. Drunk drivers walk free and their victims die slowly in a fire. People die alone. Some people don’t know who they are when they die; some people don’t have a single number they can call. They’re cremated by the county without a trace.

I soon found that I was having a series of tiny panic attacks over faith, more and more disorienting, these little underground bombs that threw me into crisis and left me scrambling for answers.

After a particularly hard case where a young woman’s dad shot her mom and then himself, I came home and tried to pick up some random inspirational book from my bookcase. What I found inside was so unimaginably distant and disgusting that I nearly threw it at the wall. I went through a few more books, and words that had once comforted me were crass and trivial. I couldn’t possibly believe that any of these authors had really suffered or seen suffering. I’m sure they had—and that’s what I wanted to see. Their raw edges. Not these luxurious, over-privileged travels and extra tips on mental re-arrangement, completely removed from the wounded. I saw these first-world tales as they really were: shallow, out-of-touch, and bereft of consequence.

I was lost in the whirlwind of malheur, the pain underneath our pain. I was struck by intrapsychic grief, from the loss of what “could be” and would never come to pass. I was a wax thread in a hot oven, my old beliefs dripping and frayed.

I suddenly understood the intensity of the Psalms, all the anger and violence and whiplashes of doubt, encapsulating the moments when we can no longer un-see this garish void of the nether, the unreturned.

I wondered if maybe it was easier not to believe, because believing was so dangerously painful.

Continue reading “The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.”

I Held a Swastika.

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.

The nurse told me that the patient, Willard, had taken a bite out of another nurse. He had swung at one of the doctors and thrown urine at a surgeon. Willard had multiple organ failure and he couldn’t walk; he kept demanding to go home. “Get me a wheelchair, I’ll flop in and ride over you people.” The staff kept trying to get him to stay, to get treated, despite his violent non-compliance: because nurses and doctors have the guts to look past that stuff.

They called for a chaplain to ask about Willard’s family members, to see if anyone could pick him up when he was discharged. I was the lucky chaplain who took the order.

When I walked in, I immediately noticed the patient had a tattoo of a heart on his hand, near the inner-fold of his thumb, with a swastika in the middle of the heart. The cognitive dissonance was startling. Not “I love mom” or his wife’s name, I thought, with a bit of snark. But hate in your heart. Very subtle.

“He’s one of those, you know, angry old fogeys,” the nurse had whispered right before I walked in. The nurse was a Middle Eastern man, about my age, and I couldn’t imagine the awful things he had to go through with this patient the last few days.

My eyes locked on the swastika first. The symbol held a terrible place in my memory: when I was a kid, someone had spraypainted a red swastika next to the front door of my dad’s business. Though my dad had tried to paint over it, I could still see it on hot summer days, a scar on the wall and a scar in my head, a mad throbbing declaration of all the world’s ugliness dripping in crimson. I still dream about it sometimes, and in the dream I’ll peer down at my wrists, which are engraved with the same red marks down to the veins.

The patient, Willard, saw me and said, “Thank God, a chaplain, finally someone who can hear me.”

But I don’t want to hear you, I thought. And a sick part of me also thought, You deserve this. I hope you never leave. Then you can’t hurt anyone out there.

He said, “Look, I see your face, I’m not trying to hurt anybody. You get it? I just want to go home. Fetch me a f__ing wheelchair, would you?.”

Willard got louder. He clenched his fists and waved them around. It was rather sad to see someone so animated and aggressive while pinned down to a bed, like the blanket had eaten his lower half and he was trying to crawl out. “Come on, I told you people that I wouldn’t hurt nobody. I got a dozen things wrong with me, I’m not a danger to you, I want to go home and to die in peace. You hear me? I’m ready to go home and die.”

Continue reading “I Held a Swastika.”

I’m Not Okay. Is That Okay?


It’s a crazy, incredible thing to be in a place where people slow down and listen, where they hear your whole story and let you paint your full heart in the air.

I was telling one of my fellow hospital chaplains about life lately, about my health problems and secret panics and suddenly about a billion other things, every humiliating and painful and neurotic moment that had been twitching my eye for the longest time, and I didn’t realize how much I had bottled up in my neatly wrapped fortress. I was embarrassed, but my chaplain friend only nodded, never flinched, stayed engaged. She then prayed for me, a really beautiful prayer, like cool water for bruised purple hands, one of those prayers where it sounded like God was her best friend down the street. And I wept. A lot. Quietly, but inside, loudly. Something then shifted and settled and became still for a moment, like the leaves of a tree coming together after a strong wind, a momentary painting. I left lighter.

Later I visited a patient who had nearly died from a brain bleed, and when I offered prayer, the nurse grabbed me and said, “Me, too.” I took her to the side, and she whispered, “Cancer. I might have breast cancer, and I’m afraid, chaplain. I’m so damn afraid.” She clenched her teeth and tried not to weep, but I put a quick hand on her shoulder and she wept anyway. She talked. I listened. There was nothing for me to say but to be there. And maybe nothing had changed—except we were made light somehow, and together drew something bigger than us. We drew colors into the gray.

There are still places, I believe, even in a busy and unhearing time, where we can draw free. I hope to meet you there, where we are not okay, but less gray than yesterday. I hope to pray for you, that we become bigger.

J.S.


Photo by Image Catalog, CC BY PDM

Ocean Electricity, Carry Me.

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.

I have a difficult time moving on after each hospital visit. And really, shouldn’t I? You know, like when you see a two minute video on Facebook about a national tragedy a thousand miles away, and then you scroll down to your friend’s vacation pictures of the Eiffel Tower or something; I can’t flip the page that fast. I’m not a channel-changer. I can’t quickly transition from videos of a war-torn Syria to a breakfast bagel. That doesn’t make me “morally sensitive” or anything, but I really, physically can’t do it.

I think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the mementos that each soldier carried with them in the Vietnam War, things like a girlfriend’s pantyhose or dental floss, but really “the things they carried” were each other’s burdens, and maybe their nap-sacks got lighter as the war went on, but inside they were sinking without a life-vest. Their mementos eventually became each other, until the person next to them was the thing they carried.

I leave each room carrying that patient with me for a while, and I’m reminded of this time I almost drowned in the ocean when I was a kid. My friend’s dad took us out on a boat into the middle of vast nothingness, and my friend and I decided to swim, but a current carried us off and we were inhaling huge gulps of sea water. My friend is a better swimmer, so he grabbed me up and swam us both back to the boat.

Sometimes, chaplaincy is like that. Here’s a patient trying to find themselves amidst doctors and diagnoses and complicated medical terms, a thirty-ish patient just learning the name of his ten new medicines, a forty-ish patient who came in for chest pain learning that she needs new lungs, a kid with an amputated foot learning about prosthetics and phantom pain—and for a second, I try to help that patient swim a little, and their arm pushes me down momentarily, but we need to stay afloat to find the boat, and occasionally we don’t find it, but I just swim with them in that turbulent roaring ocean for half an hour, and that was enough for another gulp of air.

Continue reading “Ocean Electricity, Carry Me.”

Room Enough for Us: Coping With the Way We Cope.

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.

I’m in a room where a father keeps telling his high school daughter, “It’s all in God’s hands now, it’s all in His hands.” The girl has lost both her feet in a car accident and her eyes are blank; she’s looking past her dad, somewhere else, into another universe where the other driver had one less shot at the bar.

I want to tell the father, You’re not helping. Can’t you be more sensitive? Don’t you know it’s a process? Can’t you see it doesn’t work?

Every room, one after another, is filled with friends and family members who try to help with the same kinds of shrink-wrapped platitudes. I’ve heard them all.

“Everything will be okay.” But what if it’s not?

“This is God’s plan.” To suffer this much? Why?

“It could’ve been worse.” But isn’t it already bad enough?

I get bitter about this stuff. You’re not helping, I keep thinking at them. And more selfishly, Let me do my job.

I guess it’s easy to see the dad as the bad guy. And sometimes, the guy who brushes off your pain really is the bad guy. But — I’ve also been learning about why we say this stuff so much.

I’m learning that we’ve all learned a way to cope, whether good or bad, and we default into the only way we know how to get through.

I thought about that father and his daughter, and how much his daughter needed to process what was happening. But maybe for the dad, the platitudes were his initial way of processing. Maybe that was all he knew about coping, and it’s what he needed right then.

Of course, the daughter needed it more. She needed the honest room to talk, to be mad, to felt what she felt. But the dad was short-cutting all the honesty because he never had the room to feel how he felt, either. He never had that chance in the first place.

I’ve seen that there’s no school for this sort of thing; there’s no open venue for vulnerability in an increasingly polarized world; no one is rewarded for saying the harder things out loud. We use religious language and pep talk and positive thinking because it’s all we’ve been trained to do. Westernized prosperity and self-help and self-talk are big businesses. We’re constantly taught that if we “dream big” and “try your best,” that we can “achieve anything” and “like attracts like” and all this other brainwashed, first-world, upper-class tripe that only works in suburbia. We’re conditioned to affirm and encourage and cheer each other on, even and especially by forced, coerced, plastic smiles. Anything else is seen as a “Debbie Downer” or “Negative Nancy” or “toxic triggers” or something. No one is taught how to talk about illness, death, or dying with dignity.

So I get it. I get why we try to fix it so fast. I get the denial. We’re all indoctrinated to be scared of the dark, so we keep it light. It’s easier to spout off a motivational one-liner that looks good in typography. No one tells you how to paint without a brush and to jump in the bloody mess.

So I hear, “God has an amazing plan for your life!” one more time, and before I get too bitter, I have to pause. I have to remember where all this comes from. This is what he knows. That’s the size of his spiritual muscle. It doesn’t make me better than him. It only means I have to be better for him.

I’m trying to have grace for this.

Continue reading “Room Enough for Us: Coping With the Way We Cope.”

Making Room for Our Neighbor’s Grief and Loss.

Like many of us, I’ve been reading on many of the horrible events this week and all the media circus which it entails. In a sea of crowded voices, both reasonable and ugly, that has said nearly all there is to say, I want to risk one more voice to the busy ocean of opinion.

I work as a hospital chaplain and I’ve sat with many, many patients and their families as the patients lay dying. I have watched quite a few slip away. It’s always a terrible situation; death is our common enemy. Everyone grieves differently, but everyone does grieve. My job as a “professional griever” is to approach each person with grace, sensitivity, and comfort, the best of me for the best of them, as much as I know how.

It’s not my place or my role to evaluate this person in their pain. And I’m not sure if that’s anyone’s place or role, ever.

I’m trying to imagine saying some of the comments I’ve read online to these patients and their family. And I can’t. I would not. Even if this patient may have been a criminal or had brought this situation upon themselves (which has been true some of the time), it’s still a terrible tragedy that they’re in this room. My patients and their families have the same hopes, fears, dreams, passions, uncertainties, and regrets as you and I have. They deserve the same dignity as you and I would want. Some of them were never accorded such dignity in their lifetime, and for some, it was this exact reason that they ended up here.

Somehow, we have socially distanced ourselves from loss by multiple levels of removal from the actual horror of loss itself. We undignify the dead by a jester’s court of judgment, by a carnival of commentary, by a platform of preprogrammed snark. We wait to see what our “side” of the discussion wants us to think, so that we neither think nor feel for ourselves.

You only have to read or hear a few callous comments to know what I mean: each proceeding comment moves further and further away from the actual people, until verbal semantics has smothered the very real loss of life into a wordplay competition. You might win: but what do you win? It seems we’d rather deconstruct or reduce these events into “legal” and “moral” terms, or punchlines and memes, or cautionary tales — and the result is abstract heartlessness.  Many of us have forgotten what it means to sit with loss and to feel the depth of its irreversibility. To simply weep.

Continue reading “Making Room for Our Neighbor’s Grief and Loss.”

15 Things I’ve Learned Not to Say at the Hospital


Things I’ve learned not to say in the hospital at the very moment of pain and tragedy:

“Everything will be okay.”

“You’re so strong!”

“Pain is what forces you to grow.”

“God has an amazing plan for your life!”

“God is using this for your good.”

“God just wanted another angel in heaven.”

“It could’ve been worse.”

“At least you’re still alive. At least—”

“Cheer up and stay positive!”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“I understand what you’re going through.”

“Time to pray really hard and read more Bible.”

“God is using this as a wake-up call.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

— and other motivational poster clichés.


Things I’ve learned to say in the hospital at the very moment of pain and tragedy (and even then, not every time):

“I’m sorry.”
“How are you right now?”
“I don’t think it’s wrong to be mad.” (Or scared, or hurt, or sad, or weeping, or uncertain.)
“How can I pray for you?”
“I’m always here.”
Or the best thing: listen.

J.S.


Photo by N Medd, CC BY 2.0

Five Husbands.

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.

The doctor tells him in one long breath, “Your wife didn’t make it, she’s dead.”

Just like that. Irrevocable, irreversible change. I’ve seen this so many times now, the air suddenly pulled out of the room, a drawstring closed shut around the stomach, doubling over, the floor opened up and the house caving in.

“Can I … can I see her?” he asks the doctor.

The doctor points at me and tells Michael that I can take him back. The doctor leaves, and Michael says, “I can’t yet. Can you wait, chaplain?” I nod, and after some silence, I ask him, “What was your wife like?” and Michael talks for forty-five minutes, starting from their first date, down to the very second that his wife’s eyes went blank and she began seizing and ended up here.

I’m in another room, with a father of two, Felipe, whose wife Melinda is dying of cancer. She’s in her thirties. She fought for three months but that was all the fight in her; she might have a few more days. Felipe is asking if his wife can travel, so she can die with her family in Guatemala. The kids are too young to fully comprehend, but they know something is wrong, and they blink slowly at their mother, who is all lines across greenish skin, clutching a rosary and begging God to see her parents one more time.

“Can I see them?” she asks the doctor.

Another room, with a man named Sam who has just lost his wife and kids in a car accident. Drunk driver, at a stop sign, in the middle of the day. Sam was at home cooking; his wife was picking up their two daughters from school; the car had flipped over twice. The drunk driver is dead; Sam doesn’t even have the option to be angry. Sam was hospitalized because when he heard the news, he instantly had a heart attack. He keeps weeping, panicked breaths, asking to hold my hand because he doesn’t know how he can live through this. He hasn’t seen the bodies of his wife and daughters yet.

“Can I see them?” he asks me.

Continue reading “Five Husbands.”

Resilient and Fragile: To Rise and Fall, In Reverse and Farewell

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.

I did my first baptism ever, at the hospital, for twins who were just born.

Lisa and Aletha had a ton of complications. One had survived. The other had died. The mother had dropped out of college and had just been evicted. The mother’s grandmother had passed away the very same day from cancer. The twins’ father had fled; he couldn’t deal with seeing his cold baby daughter, much less ponder how he was going to raise the surviving one, who he had expected (maybe hoped) would die.

I entered the room and stood at a curtain, reading the label of the sterilized bottle of saline water, feet shuffling. The mother called me in.

Continue reading “Resilient and Fragile: To Rise and Fall, In Reverse and Farewell”

We Bleed, All The Way Up


The patient really believed her cancer was somehow “God’s amazing plan for my life.” She went on to say the things I always hear: “He won’t give me more than I can handle. Thank God we caught it early. God is going to use this for my good.”

I get why we say these things, because we’re such creatures of story that we rush for coherence. But even when such theology is true, I want to tell her that it’s okay to say this whole ordeal is terrible and that it really hurts and that we live in a disordered, chaotic, fractured, fallen world where the current of sin devours everything, that bad things happen to model citizens, that nothing is as it’s meant to be, and the people who don’t catch the cancer early aren’t well enough to thank God for anything, and that not every pain is meant to be a spiritualized, connect-the-dots lesson as if God is some cruel teacher waiting for us to “get it.”

Pain doesn’t always have to be dressed up as a blessing in disguise. God hears our frustration about injustice and illness: for He is just as mad at suffering as we are. He doesn’t rush our grief. He bled with us, too, in absolute solidarity, and broke what breaks us in a tomb. He is the friend who meets us in our pain, yet strong enough to lead us through. I can only hope, in some small measure, to do the same.

J.S.


We Have to Talk About It: What Hurts Worse Is When We Don’t Talk About What Hurts.

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number sixteen. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.


Frankie was in his late-twenties and just discovered he had brain cancer. The bad kind. As if there’s any other.

His wife was in the room. They were sure he could beat this: but can you really be sure?

Frankie had a smile the size of Texas; his speech was slurred from the pain meds but he was cracking jokes in that quiet room. He was genuinely funny. I couldn’t believe how funny he was even with all the tubes sticking out of him and half his head shaved from the biopsy and his tongue made of mush. He wanted to yank out those tubes and get back to work. I wanted to help him.

They kept talking about the future like it was a sure thing. “I’ll be fine,” Frankie said, and his wife: “He’s tough, he’ll be okay.” Part of my Chaplaincy Radar was sure that this was a bad idea, because cancer is an unpredictable monster, and I wanted them to confront the grief with honesty. But the other part of me wanted to feed the hope. Keep with the jokes, you know, keep it light and easy, and I’ll bring the pom-poms.

These are the harder visits, when no one wants to talk about the thing they’re going through. I know that positive energy is a good thing, and we need affirmation and good vibes for good health: but this sort of suppression is like covering a pot of boiling water with your hands, and the more you try to cover it, the more it burns you up and the more likely you’ll explode all over the kitchen.

Continue reading “We Have to Talk About It: What Hurts Worse Is When We Don’t Talk About What Hurts.”