Being Present for the Dying

Death is a part of a pastor’s ministry because it is part of life. OK, true, I do some hospice work, which makes death a regularity. This summer, though, was particularly trying. I had two funerals within a week in July. I had three funerals in the last eight days.

As I work very part time as a hospice chaplain I don’t have many patients, although this summer I had one, a ten-year old girl.  Even when a patient dies, we don’t always preside over the funeral.  Many patients have their own clergy.

Two funerals were related to the church.  One died as a current member and another as a former member.  Those I did within a week of each other in July.

Two funerals were for veterans at the shelter.  Both had cancer and were on hospice.  They died within a couple of days of each other.  Both men had a history of drug abuse.  They had family, but due to their addictions their family connections were strained even in love.  I did them a week apart, September 5 and 12.

The fifth funeral was for my ten-year old patient.  I did that one September 5.

I don’t recall having to preside over this many funerals in this short a period.  I also happened to support a couple of other people who died this summer, but did not have to preside over their funerals.

Although dying and death are a part of life, they are not activities people relish.  I remember years ago when I first began in ministry, one of my wife’s colleagues at the time asked me how it was going.  I said, “Today, I spent a couple of hours with an elderly couple eating fresh gingerbread and drinking coffee.”  He said, “That sounds pretty good.  I could do that.”  I then said, “But keep in mind that I also have to tend to people who are dying.”  “Oh, yeah, not for me,” he said.

I can’t speak for all my colleagues, just me.  But have you wondered what it’s like for a pastor to deal with dying and death?

Without a doubt, this is a sad task.  It really doesn’t matter how many people I’ve supported as they died, each death makes me pause in my day.  Of course, how well I knew the deceased makes a difference.  Honestly, I feel the loss more acutely when I know the person than when I don’t.  The better I know the deceased and the family, the more compassion I have.

When I can be with the person as he is dying, I seek to give him peace.  I patiently answer deep spiritual questions, such as “what is dying like?”  I sometimes need to quell the anxiety around his life.  I might help the patient review his life to give him some affirmation that his life mattered to his family, friends, and community.

Given the veterans I serve, many of them had troubled lives.  They had addictions. Many were in and out of jail.  Often their connections to family are gone or at best thin.  Many will reflect upon their lives and have a deep fear that they will not find salvation.  I work with them diligently to help them find peace by validating their life and by speaking passionately about God’s love.

I can’t ignore the family or close friends who care for the dying person.  Often I have to help them.  Sometimes they wonder if they did enough (they did).  Sometimes they are angry and I have to figure out the source of the anger.  Particularly when the disease is especially difficult, like ALS, I’m apt to say, “People are telling you God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.  And you’re thinking, ‘That’s a bunch of crap because if God’s giving me this, I don’t want anything to do with God.”  They usually nod in agreement.  (Hint: Because dying is uncomfortable anyway, don’t say stuff that makes you comfortable.  If you’re uncomfortable, imagine them.  Try saying, “I’m sorry,” which is true or “If I can be of help, let me know” and mean it.)  Sometimes family members are at a loss for what to do as death approaches.  I remind them that hearing is the last sense to go, so tell the person you love her and thank her for what she did for you.  I also remind them that it is not always possible to be at bedside when the person dies.  Some people don’t want loved ones to see them take their last breath.

This is difficult work.  It’s tiring, though rewarding.  Some sessions drain me, especially when the dying person had a very troubled life.

When the person dies, I try to meet with family members to help them process the death.  We might talk about funeral plans, but mostly we talk about the person’s life and what would give them comfort.  I ask a lot of questions to prompt them.  I don’t try to fill silences, either.  I try to use our time to put the deceased in past tense for the survivors can move on.  We talk a bit about the grieving process, especially noting that it could take a full 18 months to two years.

Then the funeral or memorial service.  I spend at least a couple of hours preparing the service.  Preparation has gotten easier for me over the years as I have a sizable collection of services from which to draw upon, especially prayers.  But I always write the homily without drawing upon past services.  The deceased was unique.  Her life was special, even if it was hardly a stellar life.  This is deeply reflective work.  I feel the weight of responsibility to put a spiritual and theological framework around the person’s life in order for those present at the service to find comfort and hope for something better for the deceased.  Though those who come to the service will have their own memories of the deceased, I try to help them find meaning about the deceased’s life so they can carry it with them as they begin their extended grief.

When I look at the congregation, I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to carry everyone’s grief for the time we’re together.  I have to do it and hold my composure because the congregation needs to feel that the preacher is strong enough to lead them, even if I’m not sure if I can make it.  When I did the funeral for the 10-year old girl, I worried that I would falter when we sang the one hymn “Hymn of Promise“towards the end of the service.

I’m spent when the service over.  I’m not able to do much afterwards.  I want to seek out a quiet space because I’m reflecting too.  But, usually right after the service I’m with other people, such as mourners or just church staff.  I usually get through the social stuff.  When I’m alone I need a couple of hours.

Sometimes, though, such as the summer I had, the deaths take their toll.  I was tired at the end of July and through August.  I took a couple of weeks off at the end of August for vacation, which was restorative, but upon returning, the 10-year old died and brought everything back.

I cope using deep prayer.  It’s been my saving grace.  I also will use humor.  I’m not alone in using humor to relieve death’s weight.  If you stumbled upon us making jokes, especially about death and dying, you’d think we were unfeeling, but in reality, we need to make jokes (in moderation, of course) to relieve the stress.

Though death is a part of pastoral ministry, it doesn’t mean that it is a clinical task of ministry.  I grieve, too.  Maybe not quite like the family or close friends, but I grieve like a lot of the community.  Each funeral takes a bit of something out of me.  Some funerals, such as for drug addicted veterans or young children, can be exceptionally difficult and draining.

After a funeral, give your pastor some space.  Don’t talk about the latest brouhaha at the church because it rarely comes close to the profundity of death.  If possible, give the pastor some extra time off, especially if the pastor had a few funerals within weeks of each other.  Ask how the pastor is feeling.  Pray for your pastor.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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4 Responses to Being Present for the Dying

  1. Erin Sullivan says:

    Oh Quentin.
    What a summer…. Keeping you in my prayers.
    Best, Erin

  2. Thanks for this essay, Quentin. Every cleric who has walked with the dying and/or the grieving has a sense of what you say so well here. For those of us who serve through hospice, we know about the fatigue and also the humility of the privilege of walking alongside the dying as they leave this world for the next – whatever it brings. When I sit with our hospice families, I am often asked about what lies beyond death. I surely do not know, and do not expect to know until I make my journey to that now far off land … and I doubt that I will return to tell anyone of my discoveries. Yet, in all of my ministry and all of my spiritual seeking and sometimes finding, there is one thing of which I personally am utterly confident: it will be alright. I am a Universalist, through and through. For me and my ministry, this much I know – we share the same life, the same light, the same divine energy and spark, and we share the same ultimate fate … and it too, as with all of Creation, is good. Knowing this one thing in the deepest recesses of my soul makes all the difference for me, and often for hospice patients and families, in doing this most important work. Namaste.

    • Quentin Chin says:

      Margaret – absolutely. Serving those as they approach death is humbling, maybe one of the most humbling things anyone can do. In many ways, this is more spiritually real than serving in a church. Peace.

  3. Debbie oliveri says:

    What a wonderful man you are. Hope you get a bit of reprieve from funerals for awhile. When a person dies, its always harder for the living. Remember, when someone dies, theres a reason. Its the shocking deaths of young or someone who was not taken because his time is up. You are doing a great service.
    Debbie Oliveri

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