Four and half years ago I sat in a hospital room with my brothers, mom, extended family, and friends as we heard a doctor say the three words that no one is ever adequately prepared to hear: Time of death....
That was the first time I ever heard that phrase uttered in front of my own face and the next few hours after that were a blur, interspersed with memories. I remember someone singing, attempting to create a bed with two plastic chairs so that my brothers, mom, and I could spend one last night with our dad. I remember leaving that Sunday morning, just the four of us—leaving my dad behind in the hospital and walking into what would become our new normal.
My father was just fifty years old when he died of a brain aneurysm. We had talked on the phone the night before. My faith was strong, but as I returned to college and tried to navigate normal life, I found that I didn't know how to grieve and that I no longer knew how I should refer to God. I didn’t want God to be a Father. But God didn’t feel like a Healer either—and nothing like a Sustainer. I knew God was there. But I didn’t know what to say.
Fast forward to 2018. I now work as a hospital chaplain, thus spending one night a week at a hospital in Austin, Texas. Every time someone dies, the pager that I carry on my necklace vibrates, alerting me that someone has left this life and it’s now time for me to go and meet a family and try to help to create a lasting memory of their parting moments with their loved ones—much like the memory of the songs and the plastic chairs, that I carry with myself today.
During the course of my internship and current residency as a hospital chaplain, I have gone from my father being the only deceased person I had seen, to now having seen over a dozen people take their dying breaths. I have been seen families shaking as the doctor calls time of death, I have heard the weeping of spouses who will now walk through life alone, friends who feel as if they will not survive, and children like myself, become angry when life steals a parents too soon. I have seen tears, heard the screams, walked people through funeral home decisions, learned more about the cost of cremations than I’ve ever wanted to know, watched life support removed, seen CPR performed, and through it all I find myself asking, “My God, My God, how am I supposed to offer support right now? How am I supposed to offer care? How do I convey to this family that you O God are near?”
On my first night as a chaplain intern, I felt a wave of anxiety rush over my body when I received that buzz on my pager because I realized that the only other time I had seen a dead body, had been the body of my own father. As I entered this room where many generations were gathered around their matriarch, I began to ask the family questions about their loved one who had just died. For the next hour I learned about the family traditions from apple pie, the state fair and choir rehearsals. And by the time I left, they were teaching me to sing spirituals. I left feeling refreshed and in awe of the way that I had been able to be a part of helping this family leave the hospital with a memory of the way they said goodbye to their mother.
Another time my pager went off early in the morning asking that I perform an emergency baptism for a little baby boy who was not expected to live long. I crossed another milestone in my chaplain journey that night as I saw a newborn for the first time and tears came to my eyes as I sprinkled the water over his face and laughed with his parents as he squirmed. Weeks later, I sat with these parents, together in tears and silence as they prepared to leave the hospital without their child.
I spent hours reading Psalms and children books with an eight year old, who may not have been able to respond to the sound of my voice, but deserved to have someone sit next to him as his life came to an end. I cried when I walked into the hospital room the next week and found out that he had died over the weekend.
I have spent time laughing with nurses about their patients who may be deceased now, but their memories and stories live on in the nurses break room. I listened to a family spew off a stream of curse words and anger at the medical team for not doing what the family thought was in the best interest of a patient. I have held the hand of weeping sister as a doctor told her that her sister would not wake up from a coma. I have listened to a man tell me that he is afraid that he will die too when his wife dies. I have joined into a holy moment of reading prayers and Psalms right up until the moment when someone has flatlined. Sometimes I have the opportunity to step outside of the room and verbally beg God to show me what to do in these horrible situations, but more often than not I’m in the room silently saying, “My God, My God, are you here? How do I convey that you O God are here in this dreadful moment?”
This task of joining people in the last moments of their loved one’s lives, has caused me to reevaluate how I see God in death. Prior to the death of my own father, I think my response to death would have been to point towards the joy and hope of eternal life. I want to believe so desperately in the advent image of my God, Immanuel—God with us. I want to believe in the God of miracles, the God who heals, the God who is the Sustainer of Life. But sometimes when I walk into a room to provide support to a grieving family, it’s hard for me to feel that God is truly with families’ on the worst days. The presence of God does not feel near, but the fog of grief hangs on the shoulders of everyone in the room. “My God, My God, are you here? How do I offer support right?”, I hear my thoughts racing in my mind.
As I walk through my own grief and attempt to offer spiritual and emotional support to others, I find myself turning back to the Old Testament, to the Psalms of Lament, to the wandering Israelites, and I search for an image of God that I can hold not only for myself, but one to offer to my patients and their families. In the last few months, I have found myself clinging to the image of Hagar in the desert. I think about Hagar, abandoned and alone, walking in the tension of her past life with Abraham and Sarah and holding her unborn son, the future of a nation in her womb. I see myself on that Sunday morning when my family left the hospital, and I remember how we held those tensions in our faces, in our tears and in our weary footsteps—mourning the past and terrified of the future. I think about the ways that no word could describe how I felt about life, much less God in that moment, and I identify with Hagar, the only person who creates a new name for God as she says, “You are the God who sees. El Roi.”
When my pager goes off night after night and slip on my shoes to walk to meet with a family who is about to enter a new normal, I think about Hagar’s God, El Roi, the God who sees. I look around the room and I tell the family, “I am so sorry that I am having to meet you under these circumstances. Just from what I can see, it looks like your loved one meant a lot to many people.” And if this family happens to find comfort in spiritual or religious language, I will offer to them my newfound image of God that we can cling to and call out to. The cloud of grief may make it too difficult to see God as Immanuel, God with us. And while God is with us, perhaps the God of grief is better referred to as El Roi. The God who sees.
Cover photo by Daan Stevens.