Joe Malm: 2 Things to Remember When Struggling With Grief

I came across the following short but insightful article on Relevant Magazine’s site. It highlights two basic observations that may seem obvious to some (the cyclic nature of grief and the importance of a social network), however the fact that it’s written at all shows the necessity to continue to educate and assist those grieving any sort of loss.

2 Things to Remember When Struggling With Grief

Joel Malm: March 5, 2018

Several years ago, a pastor who was a longtime mentor and friend of mine did some things that caused havoc in my family. Overnight we lost our church community. We felt totally betrayed. For weeks I was angry, then sad, then just depressed. I avoided interaction with people. I didn’t want to hear any Christian platitudes that just made me feel worse.

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Words Fail

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. Continue reading

James Ford: The Zen of Letting Go Before You Die

La Pieta Rodanini, Michaelangelo

A short reading from James Ford, originally posted on Patheos’ Buddhist page: Continue reading

Assurance When You Aren’t So Sure: Chaplains, Funerals and Nonbelievers

Funerals are something that Chaplains are well acquainted with. I’ve attended and presided over more than I can count over the past ten years. These can be challenging for Chaplains as more often than not, we know very little about the person we are eulogizing. Many times we may know little more than a person’s religious background and the stories told about them by friends and family.

Chaplains are also occasionally called on to perform services for those who never believed, at least as far as we know. I’ve done a few of these services myself, and they can be challenging. Ministers who believe in the final, eternal punishment of the unrepentant sinner can feel torn when asked to perform a funeral for someone whose faith may be unknown, unclear, or even blatantly unbelieving. Typically at the funeral of a believer we comfort those who mourn with the assurance of heaven and salvation. How do we comfort those for whom that assurance is not so sure? Continue reading

“I wait to see if they come back”: Shelly and the Pain of Love

“My life’s been like a Stephen King novel.”

That was how “Shelly” described her life to me, and it turned out to be fairly accurate.

I had been requested to see Shelly at a skilled facility by the staff there. She had been the roommate of one of our patients who had died recently (I’ll call her Mrs. Bea), and the staff felt that she could use some support. I don’t get requests for visits like these often, and usually when I do I find that it’s more often the staff that have issues with coping rather than the person they’re directing me to. That was not the case here. Continue reading

The Push and Pull of Empathy

Chaplains can find themselves in some sticky situations among family members. While our primary focus is often the patient or other person we are working with, we can be brought in to situations where family members are at odds with one another, with staff, or even with the patient. We may be brought in to help defuse a volatile meeting or try and get the family on the same page. The reasons for this often comes down to two of the most important skills we have in our toolbox: our capability of empathy and our ability to listen non-judgmentally. Some people though have a knack of turning those skills against us. Continue reading

In Defense of “Feel Good” Theology

I need this mug

I want to first state that this is not going to be a bashing of traditional, orthodox Christian theology. Orthodoxy certainly has its place, and has earned it over thousands of years. Lately it’s come under quite a bit of fire in spots, especially regarding such things as its view of homosexuality, penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of hell and so on. This is not about the merits or problems with conservative theology against progressive theology. Neither is this about defending “health-and-wealth” theology, which is an entirely different subject altogether I think. What I do want to do is give a (qualified) defense of what many call “feel good” theology, “me-ology” or “watered down” theology, which for the sake of discussion is teaching or theology that tends to favor the emotional over the intellectual, and minimize talk of God’s judgment (sin, hell and so on) in favor of God’s love (grace, forgiveness). It’s one of the most derided forms of faith, and often for good reason. However I am going to say that in some circumstances it’s not a bad thing. Continue reading

Why We Get Complicated Grief Wrong

I recently switched positions in my company to help manage our bereavement services. Don’t worry – I’m still in the field as a chaplain as well (with a very limited caseload – something I asked for)! I had a great deal of experience working in bereavement in my prior company so this has been a good fit so far.

However this move has brought up something that has always bothered me. That is even though that the staff I work with on a daily basis has years of experience in hospice care we still struggle with measuring and even recognizing complicated grief and bereavement. Continue reading

When All is Said and Done: Death and “Magic Words”

Your average hospice chaplain. Probably had 3 units of Level II CPE.

Recently I had a family whose mother was on hospice with us. When Isabel* had a sudden decline and became active her family gathered around the bedside and all started to say the things that families and caregivers – including hospice staff – feel that they need to say in order for the dying person to “let go”. They all said that they loved her and that they would be OK. They had out of town family come in and say good-bye in person and on the phone. They told her over and over again that it was OK for her to go. The priest gave last rites. This went on for well over a week.

Needless to say it was rough. The family came and went, said what they needed to say, and still Isabel seemed to hang on. There were a lot of thoughts and questions: “What haven’t we said? Is there someone that hasn’t said goodbye yet? Is she waiting to hear from someone? What are we missing? Why is she still here?

My best response was, “I don’t know.”

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“Hope can harm dying patients”: F. Perry Wilson on Doctors, Families and Misplaced Hope

Our humanity, as well as our caring nature, often calls us to be sources of strength and encouragement to those who are in crisis. This is true of Doctors, Chaplains, Nurses – in fact the whole hospice team. We hate to be the ones delivering bad news, especially when we feel like the other needs comfort rather than reality when reality most likely is going to be awful.

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MS

Dr. F. Perry Wilson, in a video report on MedPageToday, reports on a recent study concerning what doctors and surrogates believed a terminal ventilator patient’s chances of survival to be. The study found major discrepancies between doctors and families, and while doctors were often more accurate in their assessment that knowledge was rarely transferred to the families in the study. Families were often too optimistic regarding chances of survival. There were several factors involved in this, including religious belief or hope for a miracle, the need to not “give up”, and even magical thinking (“If I circle 50% it might be true”).

The study and analysis reveal how medical clinicians and supporters, including Chaplains and Social Workers, can reframe “hope” to mean hope in a peaceful death rather than hope for a full recovery.

One piece of the puzzle that was not addressed was that this unwarranted optimism could easily be seen as part of the grieving process for families. While education about realistic expectations is certainly necessary and needed, resistance to this advice in favor of “hope” shouldn’t just be written off.  Denial, bargaining and magical thinking are part of the grieving process and may show that they are trying to wrestle with acceptance rather than avoid it.