I wrote this last week and just never got it posted… I'm now officially done with CPE, but there will be a few posts coming from the experience, I think, now that I have time to sit back and reflect on it a bit more …
There are lot of rules in the hospital about patient confidentiality (and rightfully so) so I have been reluctant to write much about my experiences with patients during my chaplaincy. But sometimes, the experience is just too powerful or interesting not to share. Of course I'll leave out anything that might possibly identify the hospital or the patient.
I walked in the room and introduced myself to the patient and his wife. As soon as I said the word "chaplain" his face light up. This is always a good sign. Reactions to saying I'm the chaplain have run the gamut, anywhere from sheer terror (why do I need a chaplain, am I dying), to suspicion (are you going to try and convert me), to disinterest (just another of a parade of hospital staff coming through), but I digress … back to this particular reaction, delight!
"I have a question for you, Chaplain." His face turns quite serious. "If you die in your sleep, how do you know you're dead?" (You will all be proud to know that I controlled my impulse to give a smart-assed answer because I saw the seriousness of his face and knew he really wanted a serious answer.)
"Well, I guess it all depends on what you believe happens after you die," I said.
He smiled and I gave an internal sigh of relief that he was pleased with my answer, or at least I was hoping the smile meant he wasn't offended or put off by it.
He stared at me for a few seconds before saying anything else. "You didn't flinch at my question, you just answered it. I like that. I guess my question is more about what should we be thinking as we die?"
I won't go into detail about everything we said (the conversation took over an hour and I don't care if you do have your favorite reading beverage and are willing to read it, I don't have the brain capacity to write it out word for word and disguise any personal information on behalf of the patient. Sorry to disappoint you).
He shared with me his personal experiences of being in dangerous situations where people around him were dying and his only thought was to protect and save others (this was the nature of his job), not the possibility of his own death. His current illness, however, had him thinking of his own death and he wondered if that meant he was going to die. He was calm and confident, believing he would go to Heaven when he died. We talked about how it felt to know that we are doing what God needs us to be doing while on earth. I didn't try to concoct any answers for him, just listened and shared what I thought when he asked. I think the conversation would have gone longer if we hadn't been interrupted by his doctor coming in. I was honored and blessed by his trusting me to share his most intimate beliefs and I told him so.
I never know what's going to transpire as I walk into a patient's room and I have to confess, the majority of them are simple, fairly short conversations. But there have been a few that will stick with me, mostly because I'm amazed that perfect strangers will open up to me because of the role I'm in – more of that "awesome responsibility" I keep discovering.
And I continue to be amazed …