Last week, I was present for my thirtieth death at my hospital since I began my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency. While I’ve found myself less anxious last week than the first time I was summoned by a nurse to be with a grieving family, I still wrestle with my own insecurities about my ability to be a spiritual presence with grieving sons, daughter, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and friends I’ve never met.
When I began my CPE residency, I thought I had already accomplished the goal of understanding death through my own life experiences. From seeing my mother pass away when I was 23 from small-cell lung cancer to losing grandparents, classmates and friends since then, I felt that I could be present with dying patients and that I could comfort family members who grieved because I too knew what it was like to lose someone I loved.
However, while I found myself not only spending several months overwhelmed with my own insecurities of what I was supposed to do when I walked into a room where family members grieved through tears, anger and other expressions of hurt and pain, I also found myself understanding Christ’s resurrection through his deliverance of my patients from their suffering and pain. It was through witnessing death and grief of these 30 patients and of the ones whom I’ve loved in my own life that I’ve come to a new understanding of Christ’s resurrection and what it means for us as Christians.
While my hospital predominately serves patients who come from Pentecostal and Baptist faith traditions, I have been blessed to witness the Holy Spirit unite people not only of from different faith traditions, but of different genders, cultures and ethnic backgrounds in a moment of sacredness. While I began my residency worried if my patient’s families would be able to relate to me when I entered their room, I soon found myself realizing that God has the ability to unite us in a sacred moment that allows everyone to reflect on the preciousness of life despite our differences. From seeing estranged siblings reunite and hold each other as they mourn the death of a lost parent, to seeing doctors, nurses and EMTs form prayer circles around patient’s families. Hospital rooms, much like our church sanctuaries, can be sacred places that often are home to spiritual transformations.
While I will most likely always have insecurities entering a room with loved ones in grief, I find myself feeling humbled as I witness and partake in a sacrament of resurrection for a patient. Because it is in these moments, despite their intense difficultly, that the Holy Spirit has a way of making the moment sacred for all those who are present.
While we celebrate sacraments of baptism and holy communion in our churches, I also think we, as believers in Jesus Christ, need to be reminded that death, grief and, above all, resurrection are sacramental experiences which need to be cherished and celebrated.
Being present in the grief of others or being present for the resurrection of a loved one does not diminish the pain we and others feel. Nor should viewing death, grief and resurrection as sacramental act as a substitute for the tears we need to shed, feelings we need to express, or even the doubts we may have towards God. However, much like sacraments of baptism and communion, death, grief and resurrection are sacred moments not to be experienced alone, but with others in our community. Because despite who we are, where our story began, and who surrounds us when our story on this earth will conclude, it is when we share times of death, grief and, ultimately, resurrection when we will be reminded of the preciousness of human life. Not only that, but we will also be reminded of Christ’s promise of resurrection for us and for all of humanity.
Christopher Schilling is a resident chaplain at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is originally from Hookstown, Pennsylvania, and is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer, and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting and cars.