Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cloud of Witnesses

This morning I sat in a memorial service at the Unicorn Bereavement Center (part of Duke Hospice) along with the other hospice chaplains, various staff and a few volunteers. We sat in a circle as one of the bereavement counselors lit a candle and led the service. A list of the names of those who had died in the past month were read aloud. There were about 50-60 names read during the time and I sat pondering the names as each was read. Afterwards there was time for those who had gathered to share stories and memories about those who had passed, so there were tears and laughter shared in that space.

Of the 50-60 names read this morning I was amazed at the number of names that I knew in varying degrees. There were countless names I recognized from the morning ritual of checking my voicemail to hear the messages that nurses, social workers, chaplains, ect left for one another to stay in contact with one another about patients so they could care for patients in a holistic way. Five more of the names read aloud had passed through my life, and even if for a brief moment touched my life by being privileged to be invited by them to share in their life. These names were of patients I had met during my time with hospice when I was shadowing various hospice staff. Although I met them and visited with them for one time I remembered my time spent with each of them.

There was also one name that I anticipated hearing as they went down the list. My patient Esther* that I have mentioned before passed away a couple weeks ago. Esther* was one of my "stable" patients who had been on hospice care for over a year and so her death was bit unexpected because she didn't seem to be what we call "actively dying." On a Thursday afternoon I visited with her and stayed about 40 minutes. During our time together she continued to show strong faith and peace in God that she was ready to go whenever He was ready to take her, but peaceful if her time wasn't yet. Esther* had enjoyed Jodi singing for her when I came with her to meet Esther* for the first time and so I offered to sing to her while I was there. When asked her favorite hymn she said anything would be fine. In trying to pick older hymns she may be familiar with I chose Amazing Grace and It Is Well. As I sang the words Esther* tried to sing along quietly when she knew the words, and when she felt her singing voice failing her she joined me by humming along as I sang. Because her eyes didn't let her read much anymore I offered to read some scriptures to her, and we finally picked the Beatitudes. When I asked Esther* what her favorite passage of scripture was she told me it was the story of Jesus calming the storm. We then had a great conversation about how God comes to us and calms the storms in our lives, and I felt that she was also speaking of the peace God continued to give her in her own illness. I also felt a connection back to the hymn we sang earlier in the visit, It It Well, which speaks of peace, being well, in your soul written by a man who lost his family on a boat in a storm, and wrote the words of the song when he passed through that exact spot. Before I left that day Esther* wanted to tell me of a dream she had. She dreamt that a man was calling her name and it was so real that she got out of bed and walked into the living room to look out the windows and see where the voice was coming from. She did not recognize the voice, but was also not disturbed by this experience. That was Thursday afternoon.

The following Wednesday morning I was checking my voicemail and heard the report of her time of death the day before. There are stories of many people seeing and hearing those that have passed on before them coming to make the end of the journey with them. I witnessed this with my own father in the last weeks of his life where he saw his father, who died way before I was born, and his mother, who died when I was about 13 years old, and said they had been there with him and talked to him. At the time I thought he delirious from pain meds or the cancer, and only later did I find out that this experience is not uncommon for those at the end of life, no matter their faith background. Perhaps Esther* wasn't dreaming, we'll never know. I can't help but think how peaceful it is to think that maybe we're not alone when we're at the end of life and those who have made that final journey before are there to accompany us on our journey. Maybe there is something to say theologically about the saints that pass on before us and the great cloud of witnesses that continues to surround us all.

*name changed for confidentiality

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