Closing In

When I first came aboard hospice care, one of the most common topics patients would reminisce about was World War II. Fortunately I had enough historical knowledge for them to feel I was on the same page. Now, about fifteen years since I first worked as a chaplain, their reminiscences are more often about the Vietnam War. Same goes for music. Patients are starting to talk about songs I grew up with!

On the one hand, it’s nice to have more of a shared background with my patients. I can chime in with my own memories if they refer to Nixon or to the Moody Blues.  On the other, I don’t want to have all that much in common with my patients if you know what I mean. It is a reminder that as a sixty-something, I am edging nearer and nearer to the same final curtain that has started its descent upon them. I am also having to care for patients more and more often who are my age or younger.

A gentleman I met at an open mike event last week was bursting to talk with me. I had just read a portion from my hospice career book about a patient who liked to refer to me as “doll” and who knew the game for him was just about over. This gentleman who I will call Sebastian was in his seventies and was grappling with some recent deaths in his family. The memorable piece of his story was that he felt “selfish” for pondering his own mortality. In the same breath he told me that given his age, he fears death more than ever. In other words he felt guilty (See my last post on this most entrenched of emotions stemming from loss. That is, forget about trying to talk someone out of it). When I asked Sebastian what was selfish about thinking about his own death, he said, “I should be thinking of the person who died, and I should be helping my uncle.” As I think about this now, his dilemma was that his fears were overriding his efforts to honor the deceased and console his relatives. And when I told him it was normal to think about one’s own end in these circumstances, he said, “It may be normal, but it is still selfish.”  I nodded my agreement, because as I explained in my last post, it is useless to try to talk anyone out of their guilt. All I can do is ask probing questions and make comments that can increase self-awareness and self-discovery. Perhaps feeling selfish was his method for distracting himself from his fears.  Ah, the complexities of the human psyche! This reminds me we should never be so quick to think we have figured someone out and therefore know what they need or should do.

As for me, I do not feel selfish about focusing on my own demise as I serve my clients. In fact, it gives me more in common with them! But the downside as I hinted in the beginning is the fear of, among other things, a premature end. I am glad in my case that fear has won over guilt because fear can be tamped down as I learn from my patients, while relief from guilt is much harder to come by.


To see my post about a client who did diminish my fears, see this entry from February 12th, 2018:

Unearthing Reasons for Some Unlikely Careers

Why I would enlist in a career as a hospice chaplain must be quite a puzzler to many. To tell the truth, I have my own list of allied professions that I could not picture myself doing, such as being a funeral director. That may strike you as illogical, since both deal with death, right? And privately, I bet everyone thinks the same thing about both professions: Why would anyone want to be in a career like that? This reaction is kin, I am sure, to when laypeople gaze upon a priest or nun and instantly think, “How can they (presumably) have given up sex?” Of all the career choices in the world, why pick ones such as these?

After officiating at a graveside ceremony recently, the funeral director and I had a chance to “hang out” and chat after all the mourners had cleared the scene and the grave diggers were going about their task (another career that is not for me). As required, the funeral director had to wait around anyway until the burial was complete. The conversation turned to comparing our jobs, and neither of us would want to trade with the other. She said, “You have to deal with the people when they are still alive, and face all their feelings about it. I could never talk to them about it. When I see families, their loved one is dead and I just go ahead and make the arrangements.”

I then told her I would be squeamish about handling the bodies and doing any work required to prepare them for burial. I would also miss establishing relationships with patients and their families, however short-lived. In the end, I asked her what people have asked me, and that is, “Why have you, and most in your profession, chosen this kind of career?” This particular director answered that it was because she was afraid of death! She even felt that was true for many of her peers. “They are trying to deal with their fear through this career and become more comfortable with death through being around it.” To me, that is quite an extreme and roundabout way to go about reducing fear. I asked some funeral directors on Twitter about this, and they felt that giving fear of death as a reason was “a stretch.”

I suppose that the reasons both on the surface and under it (approximately 6 feet under) vary from person to person, just as they do for chaplains. I think some funeral directors grew up with their parents being involved in the same profession. I think some find meaning in this career as a community service, and feel empowered by their ability to help in this way. Now that is something I can relate to: unlike so many people, my ability (and that of chaplains in general) to stand steadfastly with those facing the Beyond or those who are first setting out into the alien landscape of bereavement, gives me a special place for me to occupy in the scheme of things. Searching for a place to belong, professionally and otherwise, has been a prominent theme in my life story, and I have found that place in pastoral care and in teaching.

If you are a funeral director, hospice worker, mortician, grave digger or the like, can you express why? Can you dig deeper, so to speak, as to some of the psychological or philosophical reasons for your career choice?


Announcement: Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, April 2014) is now available on Kindle.