Starting out as a chaplain I was very concerned about what I might say and what counsel I could provide to others. As time went on I learned chaplaincy was more about listening than talking, and learned to silence my inner psychologist and problem-solver (or at least to keep that voice in my head, if not silenced). Then there are the times where words just fail.
Last week I got a call from a nurse that “Mary”, one of my patients, was likely starting to “transition”, which is what we call it when a person goes from declining to dying. She had been on hospice for just over two years and her staff had become like family. I was her chaplain, and even when I transitioned over from doing chaplaincy primarily to bereavement care I continued to see her and her daughter. I’d visit with Mary in her room, usually after being barked at by their dogs for a good while until they remembered who I was. They were always good visits. We usually watched whatever she was watching for a bit, usually “In The Heat of the Night” or whatever game show was on. We would laugh and joke, and share news of our lives. She often talked about her family, her husband who had died many years ago, and her faith. She felt self-conscious, often saying after a few minutes of sharing something that she was “doing all the talkin'”, her way of diverting attention from herself. Mary often talked about how bad she felt that she needed care from her daughter. Both were suffering from cancer, but her daughter was responding well to treatment and more than able to care for her mom. Mary would never let me leave without a prayer. Sometimes she’d cry as we prayed.
This time when I saw her she was a shadow of herself. Her eyes were closed, arms limp at her side, her face hollow and emaciated. Her normally chatty personality was lost somewhere else. She could still hear me and talk to me though. I told her how much I enjoyed getting to come to her birthday party, which we had just had a few weeks before. I told her how much I enjoyed our visits and her family. I told her how much God loves her and how much I loved her. Each time she replied, “I hope so”.
I asked if she wanted me to pray and she perked up, “oh yes”.
I started to pray and tried hard to get the words out. I thanked God for her and her family, that she was able to be at home, and for his grace and love. But at some point, mid sentence, I just stopped. I felt like I was grasping for words that were just out of reach. I tried to speak but just couldn’t think of anything to say.
And I just stopped.
I held Mary’s hand, looking at the peaceful expression on her face. It wasn’t the anxious person afraid of “doing all the talking” while so desperately needing to do so. It wasn’t guilty or afraid of leaving behind her family. I felt my own tears and realized that I didn’t need to say anymore, and that I was more comfortable no longer needing to say anything.
I told her I loved her and gave her a kiss on her forehead.
Mary died four days later, at home.