“You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
My pastor intoned these solemn words, inscribing the sign of the cross on my forehead. Rising from the kneeling bench, a shift in the bank drive-thru awaited me. “What’s that dark spot on your forehead?” Chris asked. I explained to my co-worker how Ash Wednesday inaugurates a 40 day period of reflection on the sufferings of Christ, an opportunity for believers to identify with what Jesus did for us. From a low-church tradition, Chris was unconvinced, but I didn’t let his skepticism get me down. The imposition of the ashes, when coupled with what I’d “given up for Lent,” drew me closer to the Lord. It fostered a sense of solidarity with other disciples who were also walking the Lenten journey.
That was fourteen years ago. Life has moved on, the bank a distant memory. After a second decade of missionary service in Africa, God sent me to Central Texas. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and 1,000 clinical hours as a hospital Chaplain Resident honed listening and empathy skills, the ability to bring calm into crisis situations. Now 18 months into hospice chaplaincy, I’m coming to understand that service to the terminally ill and their caregivers is a calling with deep rewards but also significant challenges. One of those challenges is managing loss.
Chaplain Tommy, my first mentor, once said: “Every chaplain has a cemetery in their mind where they bury the dead.” He also encouraged me to ask hospital patients the question, “What’s been lost in all of this?” It gave permission for people to grieve what their disease had stolen.
In hospice, loss has a cumulative effect. While some patients only come on service for a few days before they die, others can linger for months as they slowly decline. Somewhere in the middle of regular visits, of singing hymns to people who deeply miss church, of praying together and – above all, regardless of their deep faith or no faith – of listening to their heart or sitting together in the silence, it happens. There’s a bond that forms as I grow fond of these people in the twilight of their lives. It’s Joe, and Janet, and Bill, and Sherry, and Scott, and dozens of others who open their heart to me, who smile when I walk in the door and invite me to pull up a chair for a visit. It’s the Alzheimer’s patients who lure me into their time machine, living some comforting memory from a time gone by, me improvising the conversation, going with the flow. It’s bearing witness to the exhausted tears of a husband, wife, daughter or son who never thought they could care for a loved one at home as they watch them slowly slip away, yet here they are, caregiver heroes. The fellowship of tears is strong; my hospice family grows a little bigger.
It always ends the same way, a call, an RN’s stethoscope searching in vain for a heartbeat, a note entered on the patient’s electronic chart: “Patient found with no cardiac activity at 1:17 a.m.” Often I join the grieving family at bedside, their lifeless loved finally at rest. The words of my pastor come back to me:
“You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Walking with a widow beside the flag-draped gurney of her military veteran husband, the emotion of the moment takes over. Tommy’s words about the chaplain’s mental cemetery come back again. Loss, great loss washes over me.
The staff of then Vice-President George H.W. Bush accompanied their boss to the funerals of foreign dignitaries. It became so frequent that they coined a slogan: “You die, we fly.” I’ve shamelessly adapted their humorous slogan to hospice chaplaincy: “You die, we cry.”
This is why I struggle with Lent. I drink the bitter gall of grief and loss on a regular basis. I bear witness to pain and suffering routinely. To lay on top of that grief another solemn layer of reflecting on the sufferings and death of Christ might be what the French call “the drop that makes the cup overflow.” It’s too much. I’ll take a hard pass.
Please don’t too quickly wash off that black cross from your forehead. I’m glad Ash Wednesday and Lent are meaningful to you. They were for me, too, at a different season of life. I’m giving nothing up for Lent, and I hope you won’t judge me. Maybe next year, I’ll feel differently, but at least for this year, I’ll content myself with the more joyous periods of the Christian Calendar.
RootOfAllLight, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons