I recently heard about the death of Morning Glory Zell, a beloved member of the Pagan community. My first thought on reading about her death was sadness. So many elders within our community are leaving this world. I never knew Morning Glory but I had heard about her and I have read about her life and contribution to the Pagan community and always held her in admiration. Since her death I’ve read many endearing posts on various blogs about her life and work and I’m not going to attempt to mirror those endearing posts; however, upon reading about her death it evoked within myself several emotional reactions that I wish to share with you today.
Working as a hospice chaplain I experience death and the prospect of death on a daily basis. Before I started working as a hospice chaplain I was a chaplain resident learning the finer nuances of chaplaincy and before that I worked as a consulting minister at a Unitarian Universalist congregation. This reflection starts when I was working as a consulting minister. There was a member of that congregation who was suffering from multiple myeloma a type of blood cancer. Her diagnosis and battle with cancer was all pervasive for her and her husband. When I read that Morning Glory died of multiple myeloma I thought about this woman. What really comes to mind is my own inadequacy in trying to help her process the grief associated with her illness and the ineffectiveness of my attempts to minister to her and her husband. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to bring comfort and I certainly didn’t know what to say or learned the value of silence.
I left serving that congregation shortly after I graduated from seminary and moved to another state to start a chaplain residency program. As is typical when a minister leaves a congregation I distanced myself from the congregation to give them time to get used to being without my presence and seeking their own way (since I left they have hired a new consulting minister). This distancing still haunts me today.
While serving as a Chaplain Resident at a Catholic hospital in West Virginia I worked primarily on an oncology unit and therefore I had a lot of exposure to patients struggling with cancer – including multiple myeloma. I was being trained in the finer points of chaplaincy and I was ministering to people with cancer. A couple of months after I started the residency, at about the time I was starting to “get it” as a chaplain, I received an e-mail indicating that the woman from the congregation I had served had died and she had been dead over a month. Once I found out I immediately called her husband to see how he was doing to which he said to me over the phone, “Oh, now you’re calling me.”
When I was serving that congregation I didn’t know how to effectively minister to the dying. I did the best I could but I always felt it wasn’t enough. I didn’t know what to say. What to do, or how to comfort them. I was a bundle of anxiety because I was unaware of just how to provide comfort to the dying. By the time I made that condolence call I knew how to effectively minister to the dying and I found myself much less anxious around death and dying, but it was too late for me to be a source of comfort to him and certainly it was too late for me to comfort her. My opportunity had come and gone. I felt horrible for days after that phone call. I feel like I had failed him while I served that congregation and I felt even worse that he thought I didn’t care and that was why I hadn’t called. I’ve acknowledged these feelings and use them to empower the work I do now since I finished the chaplain residency and now work as a hospice chaplain.
As a society we’re not prepared to deal with death and dying. It’s easy to post “hugs” on Facebook but it’s rough being in the room with someone who has terminal cancer. I learned to be comfortable with silence. To feel okay with not saying anything and to live in that uncomfortable place that the living find themselves in when confronted with the dying. To be able to point out the obvious, “This is a horrifying experience and you’re scared,” with genuine compassion while refraining from saying, “Oh, it’s going to be okay. I’ll light a candle for you.”
I remember an incident when I was a chaplain resident. I had visited with Tom (I will call him Tom, not his real name), a cancer patient, several times and he would often be depressed because his home was over an hour away and his wife had to work and wasn’t able to be with him very often. I had probably visited with him on at least three occasions over the months I was there at the hospital. On one occasion, the last time I saw him, I got a call from the unit’s nurse asking I pay him a visit. I walked into his room and his wife was there. He seemed pleased she was with him; however, she said to me, “The doctor was just in and he said Tom has two weeks to live.” We started talking and I listened to what they had to say about the final prognosis of his cancer. Finally, I said to them, “You have two weeks left. What are you going to do with those two weeks?” She looked straight at me and said, “We’re going to pray for a miracle. We can fight this.”
I looked at Tom. He was stoic. He had been battling cancer for ten years. The miracle was that he had ten years of life after his initial diagnosis. At this point their pastor walked in and I shook his hand and we exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t want to “step on his toes” so I said my goodbyes and passed the proverbial chaplain’s torch to their pastor. As I was washing my hands I heard Tom’s wife say, “Pastor Steve, the doctor was in and said Tom has two weeks to live.” To which Pastor Steve said, “What’s the Lord have to say about that?”
I walked out of the room feeling sad. I knew that Tom was conflicted and wanted to just spend quality time with his wife before he died and didn’t want to focus all of his efforts in prayer for a cure when he knew that wasn’t going to happen. But his wife’s anxiety was too much to accept and there was nothing they could do and that the fight was over.
About an hour after I left their room I got a call from the nurse to visit with them again, they requested my presence. I went back to the room and Pastor Steve was still there and Tom’s wife said, “The doctor was in again and suggested Tom go onto hospice care.” At that moment there was some silence with all eyes looking at me to which I said, “Two weeks. Make that time count, how are you going to spend that two weeks?” Pastor Steve jumped in and said, “We’re going to pray for a miracle. The Lord answers prayers so we’re going to pray.”
I felt powerless in this situation and I felt sad. I felt sad for Tom. He wanted to just spend quality time with his family. He was tired and didn’t want to fight the inevitable. But he was surrounded by highly anxious people who didn’t want to accept his death was coming soon. At this point in my interaction with Tom his pastor turned to me and started making small talk. He was uncomfortable with Tom’s condition that he didn’t want to enter into it with him so he made small talk with me. Eventually, I realized there wasn’t much more I could do so I said my goodbye and that was the last time I saw Tom.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I’ve said many final goodbyes. Each patient and their family are unique and it is a blessing to be able to minister to people at the end of their lives. Recently, our community has had a lot of deaths. Death is a natural transition and yet it has given me an opportunity to reflect upon life in general and my own life in particular. From what I have read on-line it appears that Morning Glory Zell had a “good death,” surrounded by people who loved her and at peace with her illness. I hope this is true because this is my hope for the patients in my care, that I can help them have a “good death” and to be at peace.