Don’t Fear the Reaper: Reactions When I Tell People What I Do

Cold-brewed-coffee-or-espresso-is-added-to-chai-tea-for-a-delicious-chilled-drink.I was in line at my local food co-op, which just so happens to have the planet’s best dirty chai (the treat I get for myself after an especially hard day’s work). It’s embarrassingly expensive, but nothing else compares. IMHO.

This morning, I was more needful of being seen than I usually am so, when the cashier asked, “How are you?” I let it be a question, rather than a social greeting.

I answered, “I could be better. I’m just coming off 24 hours at the hospital.”

He looked at me, a kind expression on his face, and asked, “Were you the patient? Or the MD? Or an RN?”

I responded, “Chaplain.”

From the look on his face, I’m pretty sure he heard me say, “Grim Reaper.”



It hadn’t actually been 24 hours, as scheduled. It had been 27. I stayed three hours extra because… well, there was a very good reason that involved newborn life and a dance at the other end of that continuum. Which is probably why I was on the more needful side of wanting to be visible to others. I knew I would be going home to an empty house (the rest of my family temporarily strewn around the rest of New England) and though I wanted to hide under my bed covers, I also wanted to be known and seen and maybe even given permission to cry.

On the first day of learning to be a hospital chaplain as an intern, they warn inform you about the myriad of reactions you will encounter. There are the people who will smile in relief at your knock on the door. There are nurses who will give you a heads up which patient needs your presence. There are people who will ask for a chaplain themselves, wanting something specific from their faith tradition or just knowing they want something and it has some spiritual quality to it.

Then there are the other reactions.

  • The patient who would welcome a visit from a spiritual leader, but when they hear, “chaplain,” they also hear, “Christian,” and that’s not their thing. (And their thing has been historically, and likely even in the present times, oppressed or silenced by representatives of Christianity…)
  • The people who have been so hurt, traumatized, denied by religion that the presence of a chaplain is not only painful to them, it enrages them and can be experienced as a reminder of that violation.
  • The ones who are wracked with guilt, not so much for any wrong they have committed, but because they haven’t gone to church/synagogue/prayers/ _______________ in a while, and think that a chaplain is the enforcer of such things, or will judge them, or withhold something from them.
  • The ones that would like something spiritual, but they see some explicit artifact of specific religiosity (a clergy collar, a hijab, a cross, a habit, a skull cap, a kippah) and cannot, or will not, let that chaplain be of service to them.
  • There are the ones whose tradition doesn’t allow female clergy, and they have bought into that value hook, line, and sinker. “Thank you, dear, but no thank you.”
  • There are those who are not religious, who are not even “spiritual, not religious,” and who look for strictly secular forms of support, not knowing or able to hear that true multi-faith chaplains “serve people of all Beliefs and no Belief.”

Then there are the people – patients and medical staff alike – who believe the presence of a chaplain can mean only one thing: bad news.   Usually death or imminent death, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper.   This is unfortunate. When it takes place in nursing staff, it can lead to families sitting with their grief alone for days on end in a hospital room while their loved is in the process of dying, with no chance to build a relationship with the chaplain so that they can be better served when the patient’s time has come. 

So, when the cashier shut up, stopped looking at me, and got all kinds of awkward-y, I kinda knew what was probably going on. Maybe long ago he had a bad experience. Maybe it wasn’t so far in the past.  Or maybe he’s really uncomfortable with anything related to the topic of death or dying. If that’s the case, he’s in good company. At cocktail parties, it is a real buzzkill to tell people that this summer I am working as a hospital chaplain. Because, when I do, they get all awkward-y and either create some reason to flee or, if they have more success at managing initial impulses, they (usually abruptly) change the topic of conversation.

Before this internship, I didn’t regularly spend time at a hospital unless you count watching tv.  I am regularly a decade behind in pop culture when it comes to media, so please don’t laugh when I share that my daughter and I spend quality time binge watching Grey’s Anatomy. (We are in the second half of season five…which originally aired six years ago). I rant every episode about the absence of a chaplain on that show. (At least OITNB has had a chaplain twice.) I rant about how all the beautiful doctorpeople work out their high-drama psycho-shit on their unsuspecting patients.

Chaplains, at least, get formal training in how not to do that. True fact.

I wonder: if there were images of chaplains in the media doing what I do ~ what my colleagues and mentors do well ~ would my cashier buddy have had the same reaction? If he had seen on his favorite television show, or Netflix series, a chaplain who sat with someone fearful of their own mortality, or as they blessed a newborn baby, or as they helped a man out of control of his rage be able to contain it enough to say good-bye to his beloved sister, or sat with a distraught ICU nurse who had just one too many deaths that day and needed a shoulder to cry on – would I have still been seen as the Angel of Death?

As long as there has been television, there has been a plethora of doctor shows.  So I don’t mean to pick on just Grey’s Anatomy.  For instance, I just pursued the list of characters on the tv show, House, M.D. There’s a hospital pharmacist, there’s even a Carnival Goer, but I did not find a single chaplain. In this nation that is supposedly one of the most religious among developed countries, is there no need for spiritual healing at the same time that there is medical healing going on?

When addressing a national group of doctors, Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said,

It is a grievous mistake to keep a wall of separation between medicine and religion. There is a division of labor but a unity of spirit. The act of healing is the highest form of imitatio Dei.

Amazing strides have been made in this arena since he spoke those words in 1964. One huge stride is the move towards a multifaith approach that recognizes all people, whether affiliated with a specific religion or not, have spiritual needs. These needs can be independent of one’
s religious identity. In a society that is becoming increasingly less identified with one religion or any religion, this is an essential step.  Is there room for improvement among individual chaplains or hospital programs?  Hell, yes.  But there has been great progress and continued movement in the right direction.

Part of breaking down the wall of separation is to make spiritual services at hospitals more visible in the wider world – not just more visible at hospitals, but also in popular culture.  

grey-s-anatomy-greys-anatomy-1663492-1024-768-grey-s-anatomy-sons-of-anarchy-doctor-who-fringe-weeds-5-tv-shows-to-binge-watchSo this is a shout out to the stunning Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy (and who might be a tad busy with Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, but a girl can dream), and to ABC, which just this past May renewed the show for an 11th season. Maybe, just maybe, the 11th season could have an appropriately beautifulpersonchaplain join the crew, just once or twice, providing spiritual support that meets the needs of the patients, not the personal-drama needs of the doctor interns and attending physicians.

Then maybe, just maybe, there won’t be as much need to fear the “Reaper.”

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