Hospital chaplains often intersect a person’s life at the time of their most desperate need. An unwed mom watches the scene unfold, as her newborn leaves the hospital with adoptive parents. An elderly gentleman speaks of war’s atrocities witnessed on the battle field, firsthand. Anxious, desperate parents wanting their young child to live, wait desperately for lab test results. Facing what may be the final season of life, saddened by illness, and unrealized hopes and dreams, many simply need to tell their stories.
Walking into patients’ rooms during random visits always demands courage, self-esteem, and a positive outlook, together with a strong sense of spirituality. But chaplains learn early on to overcome a fear of rejection when they initiate a visit, enter a hospital room and experience a patient who opens their heart in a slow but sincere manner.
Some people think it is about religion. But I found that people accept or reject a chaplain’s visit for a variety of reasons. Religion often never enters the conversation. Chaplains are, in most cases, expected to leave that part to the patients. We just carry them wherever they want to go. Sometimes people respond that they are “Okay that way,” which I interpreted as having their own way of meeting their spiritual or emotional needs. For many, loneliness was one of the main reasons to accept, and anger, the main reason to reject a visit from a chaplain.
In the emergency room, when doctors put forth their greatest efforts to save a patient’s life, death is oh so near. How this death, which we always imagine as being a million miles away from us, so close at that moment? I reflect; "Am I in the same room with the angel of death at this very moment?" The reality of death removes all blocks between the chaplain and the patient; it brings us back to our humanness and our primordial state in front of God.
I encounter lonely, elderly men. These were once tough men, brave men; men who fought in our country’s wars. They were hard workers, often at menial jobs done sacrificially to provide for their families. Most never knew how to express their emotions. Many of them, shattered by the horrors from fighting in wars and suffering family tragedies, needed to be heard. It is a privilege to be the one listening to their stories and moved by a compassion that was never before experienced.
It is not often that any of us witness older men shedding tears. In the privacy of our visit, they voiced their doubt, fear and anger. “No one should ever have to see what I saw, what I was involved in. God – where was God then?” My heart would be crying out to God, “How do I respond? What do I say?” They were asking difficult questions that deserved more than a glib reply. I did not possess the words or the compassion in my own strength. I needed to increasingly rely on God in my encounters. I too wondered “why” and felt their fear and frustration. I listened. I know “God works all things for the good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Yet, meeting these men and women, voicing their prayers and concerns to God with them, I grieved.
A life-threatening illness grants a saint’s wisdom to the most vulgar person. Not an automatic or an easy transition, but it cultivates the soul gradually, inch by inch. Since the time Albert learned about his cancer, he has been seeing through a different lens; “All my accomplishments, my goals and ambitions meant nothing for me in seconds when I learned that I had cancer.” Lost is the pleasure of health, and the reality of life and death are finally under daylight. The sick person has the longest time in the world to reflect on this.
Anxious and distressed, an old lady complains that the young do not understand the suffering that old age brings. “Why does God, whom we know as merciful and compassionate, let us suffer?” is a common question among the sick. Some patients are angry with God. Their inner struggle covers up the beauty behind the illness. Yet, it is not ours to correct anything too fast. Their feelings are precious. Acceptance of God’s will can eventually follow the anguish, uneasiness and questioning in the beginning of illness.
To say that life sometimes hurts and is often unfair is an understatement. And it does not satisfy the “why” questions. Facing what is a major fear of all people, the loss of all we hold dear – abilities, youth, dreams, beauty, wealth, pride, fame, life itself – we can only listen.
They see with the eye of certainty and I come to understand with them, that our bodies are prone to separation and death; and the pleasures of this world do not continue. This warning is very bitter and painful at first, yet then it becomes beautiful. We should remember that we are mortal; we have a duty in life and we should prepare well for the next life. It is said that a good friend is harsh but honest. So is illness, it seems.
Sometimes being around patients’ sadness, fear and hopelessness day after day is depressing. But the most draining encounters are with the ones who have turned completely away from God. I honestly grieved for those, who in their times of terrible tragedy, seemed to feel no need for God.
Amidst the dark thoughts, I hear a patient reminding me that life is not only about sickness, but it is a reflection of God’s beautiful Names in miscellaneous ways. I happen to see only the sad part of patients’ life stories, as a chaplain, but that is not all. “Just as, through hunger, you learn of His Name, the All-Providing, so too through your illness, you come to know His Name, the All-Healing.” Thoughtful as he is, Jack says: “I might have cancer now, but I appreciate life in general; there is so much that I am thankful for. Just one big thing that I learned from my sickness: I never thought that I took life for granted. But now, I understand that I did.”
Arthur Frank, a former cancer patient and the author of At the Will of the Body, says there is a problem with the view that physical recovery is the ideal ending of illnesses. He asks “if recovery is taken to be the ideal, how is it possible to find value in the experience of an illness that either lingers on as chronic or ends in death?” Along the way of a health problem, there is the opportunity for spiritual transformation and renewal. This renewal, as a result of physical illness, is the ideal. Either an illness ends with death or not, but one should be aware that there is more than pain that one can receive from illness. From Job we learn, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10).
I feel that this man who became poor-looking and weak in the hands of his illness was one of the fortunate ones, as he benefited from this gift of his serious illness. While some of his fellows become neglectful and forget God Almighty through the calamity of good health, this man’s long talk was only about God’s beautiful Names. His illness is good health while for some of his peers good health is a sickness.
Listening to patients is the most valuable gift that one can offer them. Asking questions to make patients talk is one major task of a chaplain, and preaching is not a way to reach out to them without truly understanding their problems. Who would care to listen to any advice without given the right of being heard? As I listen to the words of wisdom pour out of this very old man, he reprimands me and says “You’re the one who should be preaching to me, but here I am preaching to you.” Yet I smile at these words of comfort about God’s love and our need for Him. And I remember the verse: “Those who say when afflicted by calamity: “To God do we belong and to Him is our return” (Qur’an, 2:156).
Lucinda Miller is ordained in the Free Methodist denomination and is now serving as a hospice chaplain. Gulsum Kucuksari is in the process of completing her PhD in Islamic Studies at the University of Arizona.