The Power of Using Our Pain in Service to Others
I’m at a party, making small talk. The inevitable conversation starter is asked: “What do you do?” I answer: “I’m a hospice chaplain.” Silence. Instantly, the mood changes. I feel the urge to lighten things up, to crack wise, and I ponder the advantage of lying when asked this question next time. After all, who am I to put a damper on social occasions by bringing up the great taboo of death when people are unprepared to hear it? Yet I also know that people are curious: What’s it like being with death on a daily basis?
I’ve had lots of jobs over the past 42 years. I’ve been a media spokesperson, a Gestalt therapist, and a marketing rep. I’ve enjoyed all to varying degrees, but nothing has clicked as much as hospice chaplaincy. Despite the relentless demands of the twenty-first-century workplace (do more with less; documentation for documentation’s sake; incessant, seemingly pointless disruptions) and despite contending with the defensiveness of folks uncomfortable with women in clergy or with those who have me confused with what too often passes for Christianity these days, I love my work.
She lies in bed, her body ravaged by a neurodegenerative disease (all identifying details in this article have been changed to protect patient privacy), her eyelids held open with little pieces of tape. We are the same age. I look deeply into her eyes and speak softly about the Divine. “God is love,” I say. There is a flash of recognition, a tear shed. And I can feel God’s love between us in that moment. Her breathing slows. She is calm again. She has spoken without saying a word.
I got there too late. The man has died. The family is in shock, especially his wife, who struggles to find her husband’s favorite soft sweater: “He loves to wear soft things.” She finds a beautiful cashmere pullover and hands it to me. As the nurse and I prepare to change the man’s clothes before mortuary transport arrives, the wife stands frozen at the bedside. I ask her to tell me about her husband’s life. He was one of the Vietnamese boat people, set adrift like so much detritus from the war until he was let into the country that tore his own apart. A shopkeeper, he eventually brought the whole family to the United States. The woman dissolves into tears as she recounts this, and any squeamishness I feel at so much contact with a dead body is replaced by a deep reverence. The Divine is here.
The woman had survived the Holocaust by trekking the back roads of Germany and Poland, just a young child dodging the Nazis. She went on to build a life here, but her decaying brain has catapulted her back in time. She screams out in terror. Her son is upset, to put it mildly. Why can’t we do something about this? As medical personnel review medications, I do my job, which consists mostly of listening. Listening is underrated. In a world of distractions, it’s a rare commodity, which only increases its power. Lots of people have to pay a therapist just to have someone’s undivided attention. As a Quaker, however, listening is second nature to me. Under the man’s anger is deep, deep grief. What will he do without his mother? His hero? I don’t need to have the answers. I just need to acknowledge his pain, to represent a Greater Reality, what I’ll document as “a calm abiding presence.” His hard edges dissolve into tears, the anger replaced by a tender vulnerability. His heart is now open to the support offered by mine.
What I know is this: unless we use our pain in service to others, all of that muck will render our souls into acrid, useless lumps. But transformed, we become personifications of God as a verb, not as a noun, and the power is unmistakable.
I was taken from my mother just after I was born, and, as fate would have it, loss has been a constant companion throughout my life. Scores of family members died, some physically and some psychically, all too soon. Coming of age at the height of the AIDS crisis—just as I was coming out—all that was solid seemed to crumble.
For years, I was mired in grief, trying in vain to be “normal,” until one day the cumulative weight of it knocked me over like a runaway freight train: cold, black steel crushing the constructs of the flimsy faith I had then. It took years to navigate out of it, yet here I am. What I know is this: unless we use our pain in service to others, all of that muck will render our souls into acrid, useless lumps. But transformed, we become personifications of God as a verb, not as a noun, and the power is unmistakable.
These days, I laugh a lot, feel a lot, and act as a conduit for that highest form of love the Greeks call agape. In a culture that obstinately holds to the notion of death as a “mistake,” I have the gift of companioning patients and families as they walk that final journey. Is it intense? Oh yes. But it’s real, and that counts in a world inundated with artifice. For this opportunity, I am grateful.