As a hospice chaplain, my job isn’t to preach or to advocate my own religion. My job is to support others in their own beliefs as they face their own death or the loss of someone they love. Sometimes my patients and their families follow a specific religion, sometimes they do not; everyone, however, has spiritual beliefs. Sometimes I pray, or read scriptures. Often I listen a lot and speak very little. I am the person who hears the things people don’t want to say to their loved ones. Sometimes I hear “I’m tired and I’m ready to go, but my family wants me to keep fighting.” Sometimes I hear, “I feel so guilty. I hate watching my mom suffer and I just wish this would end.” Since I live and work in Central Florida, I experience huge diversity in the people I serve and in their beliefs.
This Friday I will see a widow I know well as she inters the ashes of her husband. The ceremony will be a traditional Christian ceremony and I will read words about everlasting life, about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I will carry a big black book with the liturgy written inside. I know there will be tears, and-knowing this raucous Irish family-there will be laughter as they remember their loved one. I’ll give hugs and get hugs. This will be, in some ways, the end of a journey and a milestone in a new journey as the widow moves forward in her journey of grief.
Last Monday I spent the day with a Buddhist family. Their beloved father and grandfather, the patriarch of a large and loving family, suffered catastrophic brain damage as a result of a fall from a significant height. The hospice team had gathered to remove him from life support, joining the man’s wife, sister, seven daughters and their spouses. I stood in the family’s suburban home, in my stocking feet, and listened respectfully as four monks in bright orange robes chanted and prayed. The family knelt to pray on beautiful, brightly-colored rugs that covered the wall-to-wall carpeting. All the furniture had been moved outside except for the hospital bed which held our patient. The monks rose and crossed the room to bless our patient, who lay unresponsive. In one hand he held candles-“To light his way,” explained his oldest daughter-and some money for his journey. The monk came to us, the hospice team, guests in this family’s sacred, sad time, and blessed us, too. Our patient’s journey of life ended later that day when he died peacefully, his wife holding his hand as he heard the voices of his family around him. His family’s journey will continue as they honor his memory and tell his stories to their own children. I carried no big black book with me; my role was to advocate for the family to insure that their beliefs were honored and respected in the places where their religious requirements met with western medical practices. There were tears. I got hugged and I gave hugs. At times, as the day unfolded, there was laughter as the family reminisced.
The thing is, our beliefs may be very different but our pain is the same. The Irish Protestant family I’ll see on Friday believes in a God who will resurrect their bodies after this life. The Buddhist family believes in a journey, too, but not in a deity. But the tears, the sadness, the love are the same. We all bleed. We all cry. We share our lives with the people who matter most and, even though we’re never really ready to say goodbye, we must part from our loved ones. Our faith, our beliefs, our religion, our spirituality in whatever form it takes brings us face-to-face with the major stuff of life: birth, death, formation and sustenance of families, being part of a community.
On Monday, I was blessed by the Buddhist monks. On Friday, I will give a blessing as part of the liturgy of the funeral. I’m honored and humbled that I am invited into the lives of those who weep when they say goodbye. Once again, I see that the things that make us human unite us even if our spiritual traditions differ.