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.”

0 thoughts on “Don’t Fear the Reaper: Reactions When I Tell People What I Do

  1. I’m probably outing myself here, but I suspect there was a reason that when I spent the 1980s watching syndicated reruns of M*A*S*H I always had a soft spot for Father Mulcahy, the chaplain. If I recall correctly, there was also a Rabbi chaplain character who had a recurring role in the later seasons of the show (I can see the actor’s face, but as with most people the character’s name escapes me.) It’s pretty sad – and possibly telling – that thirty years’ worth of medical dramas later, the chaplains are more invisible…

    1. I can’t believe that I didn’t think about Francis Mulcahy while writing this! Especially because one FB friend//UU colleague had his image as his FB profile pic for most of the summer! I guess wartime medical needs are different than sexy-drama-at-home medical needs?

      1. Could be that. I kind of wonder if it wasn’t just that the 1980s happened the way they did: increasing mistrust of institutional religion and rising secularism made the religious-authority figure not so interesting? Maybe I’m making stuff up here 😀

  2. Thank you so much for this post Karen! I haven’t had the honor of this part of our journey yet, but I’m already a little anxious because of how poorly understood the role of chaplain is in our culture. At the same time, it feels like some of the people who are training chaplains have an incredible understanding of human nature and the perilous place in which anyone sits when they are standing between someone and grief or joy or any major life event. Well done to your mentors for guiding you through this space in such a way that you can share this lucid and inspiring post. 🙂

  3. I’m doing my CPE this summer, too! Being a hospital chaplain is one of the hardest, most grueling, and most rewarding jobs I have ever done. Thanks for this post. I always notice the absence of a chaplain on the medical shows. Social workers are there. Where are we?

  4. Karen, there is much to praise in your essay, and much to lament about how all these words—”chaplain,” “religion,” “God,” etc.—get the hairs of our collective culture, and even moreso Hollywood’s, standing right up on end. But I’ll confine my kudos here to your ready recognition of just being in one of those “needing to be known and seen” emotional spaces, and of acting on that feeling by putting it out there, even to a store clerk, whose hapless response you accepted and noted for what it was (and wasn’t). No small thing, that need, nor that you deigned to attend to it. Sounds like an enriching chaplaincy for you and those you’re serving.

    1. Andrew, it has been a thoroughly enriching experience, one I might indulge in again, once I get the rest of this M. Div studies and internship completed. Thank you for your kind and thought-full comment and for stopping by.

  5. I am Jewish. I welcome anyone who helps. It takes a special person to acknowledge death as a thing that happens. It is just part of life. We are mortal and that is the crux of life. I had a stroke at sixty and came back but for a while I realized death was around the corner. It did not bother me. But I stayed with life, lost ninety pounds and learned to sweat. The poisons of my life oozed out of my body and I am now in good shape. Although tomorrow I might not awake from slumber I am okay with that. That is just what is.

    1. Thanks, awax1217, for stopping by and commenting. It sounds like you are awake, which is not easy, but is preferable, at least to my mind/heart. May you be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. ~ Karen

  6. Thanks for sharing your story and congrats on the Freshly Pressed. I always like it when they highlight blogs with a spiritual angle. I’ve considered taking training as a chaplain specifically because I am not uncomfortable with death and actually find it a holy time to accompany someone through that passage. I had never thought about the joyful parts of the job – just like a pastor. And just like life. Peace to you- thanks for all you do and blessings on your M Div!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Melanielynngriffin. Yes, joyful stuff for sure. Hope you look into whether doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education is the right thing for you. ~ Karen

  7. I’m a nurse at a hospital and i think telling people you work in an environment that often deals with death is a conversation killer. That being said, someone has to do it. Good on you for doing this blog! I’m a huge fan of Grey’s Anatomy incidentally, and they’re quite good (if inaccurate) at the touching human moments. They should have a chaplain there! Although knowing Shonda, she’ll find a way to dramatize that angle to death. Lol

  8. It sounds to me like what you’re doing is the closest thing to what I would consider my “calling” – a non-religious, non-secular, open approach to dealing with grief and loss that meets everyone where they are, not where we want them to be. I’d like to work with you.

  9. I like your post. I came across it in Freshly Pressed. Having recently been visited by a chaplain in a hospital, I see what you’re saying. I like that you’re there to support multi faiths. Good on you and well written.

  10. This is a really interesting post. As a social worker, I know all to well the awkwrdy pause when I tell someone what I do and can tell they are picturing me removing their kids… Thanks for putting this out there. And congrats on being freshly pressed!

    1. Thanks momasteblog for dropping by and commenting. Looks like you have a great blog, too. May you be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. May you know happiness and the root of all happiness. ~ Karen

  11. This has been a really interesting read. I love Grey’s too and I never noticed the absence of a chaplain character. In fact I didn’t even know that such a role existed. I just figured people have someone from their own faith community visit them, if that’s their wish. Thanks for the great read and the illumination!

    1. I watched E.R. but wasn’t tuned into the chaplain thing back then. My guess is it probably didn’t. Scrubs? Hmmm. Maybe? Thanks for dropping by my blog. Peace to be you ~ Karen

  12. I’ll be honest, my first reason for being here is the reference to the video at the bottom. After that, it became about the excellent post, but I was still happy to see BOC at the bottom. Best wishes

  13. I really appreciate this post. I’m a physician and although I’m not of the Christian faith, I really value the pastoral care services at my hospital. I often call on them when I think a patient could use a bit of social support or just someone to talk to in a way I unfortunately don’t have the time to provide. I too have experienced patients’ varying reactions when I ask them if they might wish to talk to our pastor. Interesting post, thanks!

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective as a physician. I’m not Christian, either, and I think that feeds one of the points of the post. Ma you know happiness and the root of all happiness. Thanks for stopping by my blog. ~ Karen

  14. There needs to be more awareness of what a Chaplain does. Religion has a lot of stigma obviously, but now so does spirituality. It should be understood that the role of a can be to connect with the individual on their level to help them with what they need at the time. Though, I can relate because I used to judge them as religious and run in the opposite direction

  15. This post really touched a nerve with me, as a few years ago I was in a terrible car accident and they sent a chaplain into the emergency room before any of my family had arrived or even been notified. I greeted him with a profanity filled rant that I was not dying and not in need of his services. He was the one who called my parents repeatedly until he reached them, but after their arrival he didn’t stick around (I don’t blame him). I was transferred to another hospital not too long after and I never had the chance to apologize or thank him. I’m sorry I was one of the people who reacted negatively. Thanks for sharing!

    1. brycinus: I am glad that you recovered. hopefully you aren’t too hard on yourself about this reaction. it’s a totally understandable one, common, and part of the process. your writing here is a form of apology, which I accept on behalf of that nameless chaplain who must have felt gratitude for getting you what you needed then: your family. everyones needs are different. peace to you and this world. ~ Karen

  16. Bless you for sharing. I too, have worked as a Chaplain, in a hospital and have found it to be one of the most rewarding experiences – to be invited into people’s most intimate times in life and get to love them, sit with them, cry with them, laugh with them – to honor each and every life! Such an incredible privilege! Many blessing to you!

  17. Fantastic post. Though I am new at WordPress it’s posts like these that inspire me to write more. I hope you can take some time and go through my blog. It’s new but your critique can help me hone my art too. 🙂

  18. I really enjoyed reading this. As a RN I’ve always believed chaplains were undervalued and underutilized. At the 5000 bed hospital I used to work at they just reduced the chaplain staff to TWO.

    Today I blogged two entries about Losing My Religion, and am not sure I would have reacted if you’d turned up at my door. Now I know chaplains also serve non-religious clients….which is good information to have.

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