Marc 7, Verbatim 0 or how I learned to stop worrying and watched someone’s last breath

Today I presented my final verbatim for my current unit of CPE. I’d be lying if I wasn’t excited about the verbatims being over but I’d also be lying if I wasn’t a tad sad about it. Turns out, I actually LIKE doing verbatims.

My final verbatim was about a visit I had a few weeks ago with a family. The patient was a teenager who had suffered a gunshot wound. I picked this visit to write about because a) it was kind of weird and b) I wanted to receive feedback on how I minister to families. When I walked to the patient’s bedside, I entered a strange and hostile family dynamic that, in the words of my supervisor, “even the most experienced chaplain in the world wouldn’t have known how to deal with effectively.” The only true effective way was to divide and conqueror. Sadly, I was not reading my book about the post-Alexander the Great empire, so the military metaphors failed to enter my mind. I did a decent job with the patient, I failed with the parents, and – all in all – I learned a lot. You might be shocked to realize that when you actively dislike someone, your ability to provide pastoral care actually diminishes – especially if you don’t realize what your gut is telling you. I know, shocking stuff, but it’s actually harder to notice than you realize. Even subtle feelings can cause strange conversation dynamics. Even with my summer CPE unit almost over, I still have a lot to learn.

So, after spending an hour today reliving my visit with a family containing people I disliked and having myself grilled over some of my issues, I found myself being summoned via pager. I was called to visit a family I met with the day before. A rather youngish man was being disconnected from life support. The family was lovely – I grew close to them rather quickly – and I was able to provide some spiritual and emotional support. I watched Last Rites be performed (and also learned why I’m glad my tradition has only a few sacraments – there’s more to comfort care than just performing the ritual!) and learned a lot about a beloved family man. The family was withdrawing support with the expectation that he would die rather quickly. But… he didn’t. He lingered. I received a page to stop by after class, before the end of my work day. After my verbatim – where I got angry and attacked a father – I found myself, face to face, with a father who was about to die. I entered the room, stood with his family, and talked with them. And then, rather soon, the man’s state changed. His breath slowed down. His family said their last goodbyes and encouraged him to finally go. And then he took his last breath.

I have never seen someone take their last breath before.

I stood with the family while the doctors performed their final checks. I stood with the family as they cried and expressed how heart broken they were yet how relieved they were that he was finally gone. I held the family when they needed it. And then I gave them their space and hugged them goodbye.

It’s been several hours since I saw the patient die and every time I think I’ve come to terms with it and processed the experience, I realize that I haven’t. I really don’t know what to feel at the moment. I feel sad. I know I’m grieving. I know I witnessed something unsettling. I also know that I did some good and I know that I was able to do Christ’s work even though I never read a psalm, never said a prayer out loud, nor did I read any bit of the gospels. But I think what gets me is the fact that the family, even before I entered the room, wondered if the patient was hanging around because I wasn’t there. The family said, several times, that the patient was waiting for “this spiritual man” who “he knew would bring comfort” to be there before he left. The patient’s wife hugged me and said the same thing as I left. I have no idea what to make of that. Maybe it’s true; maybe it was a fluke of fate. I don’t know. I really don’t know. But it was a truly beautiful, moving, and heavy thing to be told. I’m not sure what it all means yet. I’m not sure if I really believe what the family told me. It’s just too…awesome; too powerful; too unlike how I see myself. I almost feel as if I was given a responsibility in that moment – a responsibility that I don’t understand nor do I truly even know what it is that I’m suppose to do. But I do know that something wild happened. And I know I did some good. But I’m still just blown away with being called to be there, at that moment. Just… blown away.

2 thoughts on “Marc 7, Verbatim 0 or how I learned to stop worrying and watched someone’s last breath”

  1. Hi! I’ve been enjoying reading your reflections, especially as it is the 30th anniversary of my own CPE summer! There’s so much here, but I wanted to share especially about the shaman/icon of God experience you had. I had a similar one on CPE that i think of as my call experience. There was this woman with dementia named Lucy. It’s a much longer story, but it involves an icon I have of the transfiguration that has what looks like an orange section nimbus around Jesus’ head. And then the fact that one day, also with no psalms, no gospel, no words, I simply picked up the orange on her bedside table that had been left as a post-lunch snack, peeled the orange for her, and started feeding her the sections. About three orange slices in, she informed me: “I see in your face, the face of Christ.” I don’t, 30 years later, have any conclusive wisdom to offer out of that experience and the one you had. But knowing that you do have that power for people, and that it comes in the simplest ways, is an important knowledge to have. Once, just seeing me on the street on the way to buy some balloons for a confirmation retreat project, gave courage to a young man who had been circling past the cemetery gates for an hour unable to go in to see his mother’s grave for the first time. I never even saw him, or had any intentionality toward him, but just the sight of me called to mind for him the ministry I’d provided over his mom’s funeral and gave him a sense that he was not alone as he made this journey. Wild, as you say. I believe that we have all, thru the priesthood of all believers, been given this type of power to bear Christ in compassion and love, and that “‘the church at large in the world” regularly does so in ways small, profound and largely unrecognized. So one of our jobs, I believe, is to keep reminding people of that. But those of us set apart for public ministry and given the privilege of a visible sign of our relationship with Christ have access and privilege that is very powerful and can be used to great gospel benefit. I am so glad for this formative experience of call over CPE, and wish you all the best!

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