Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling

Spiritual Care Week 2019 Part 5: Cultivating Space…for Death?

Each year the COMISS Network promotes Spiritual Care Week. It is an occasion to recognize the different disciplines who offer spiritual care to persons. The theme for 2019 is Cultivating Space. Throughout this week you will hear from CBF endorsed chaplains and pastoral counselors as they focus on this theme. Below is Part 5. Learn more about Spiritual Care Week at spiritualcareweek.org

By Kim Chafee

“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And immortality…”
(Emily Dickinson)

Kim Chafee

Kim Chafee

As people of faith, we are to be welcoming. We are to welcome the stranger as much as friend, difficult times as well as good ones, but what about the final phase of life? What about death?

Is it possible to welcome death—not just because we are old, feeble, or diseased, but because it is a natural part of human existence? Scripture implores God to, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12, NRSV). We also have the words from Ecclesiastes that tell us that there is a season for “every purpose under heaven,” including life, and death (Ecclesiastes 3:2).

But the American culture and lifestyle scream “youth,” and instruct us to avoid growing old at all cost. I continually receive ads on all my social media, regarding the latest products that I should apply to my face so that I can look younger. And then, there are the numerous suggestions that, “If you’re over 40 you should NEVER wear this…” Again, the emphasis is on retaining one’s youth, or at the very least, its appearance.

As a hospice chaplain, I spend a lot of time with the dying, so I don’t have the luxury of pretending that death is something that is far off. I visit with death daily, and am familiar with the accompanying symptoms that the end of life is hovering nearby.

I’ve sat with patients who were ready, even anxious, to go, and others who fought until they drew their last breath and closed their eyes for the final time. It causes me to consider my own mortality, and to contemplate my faith and how it affects my view, as well as my participation, in life, and my attitude toward my eventual death.

Many of my patients who are afraid tell me they aren’t afraid of the “here-after,” they’re more concerned with what they will go through to get there. Will there be pain? Will their loved ones be taken care of? They are relieved to find that one of hospice’s greatest attributes is their understanding of end-of-life issues, including pain management, as well as the bereavement care that will be provided for their loved ones, following their passing.

For those who have a spiritual fear of death, I share the peace of Christ, but never in a judgmental way—always with respect and their consent.

Several years ago, I had a patient in the final few days of his life. He had been raised in the Christian faith tradition—Baptist, so we had a common background. Somewhere along the way he had left the Christian faith for a different belief system, but we had meaningful discussions regarding his illness and his faith journey.

One day, shortly before his death, he said that he wanted to tell me about a dream that he had the night before. This patient loved trains and had photos and train memorabilia scattered around his room. With his face beaming, he said that in his dream he was on a beautiful antique train, and in the aisle, he saw Jesus, in glorious white clothing, walking toward him with his arms open.

And then he asked me, “What do you think it means?”

Back to those verses in Ecclesiastes that discuss the different seasons of our lives… living and dying, mourning and dancing, weeping and laughing. Fortunate for us, according to verse 11 of that chapter, we are also told that, God has made everything suitable for its due time, and, here’s the best part—God has placed eternity in our hearts.

Since God made us for eternity—even though our earthly bodies are prone to disease, old age, and eventual death—we are assured that we can have peace in every part of our journey—the good parts as well as the difficult, and the downright awful ones…because Christ awaits us with open arms.

I, for one, look forward to that eternity, that has already begun.

Rev. Kim W. Chafee is a CBF-endorsed chaplain serving as the Spiritual Care Coordinator for @Heart Hospice in Virginia Beach, Va. 

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