Category Archives: chaplaincy

Emotional burden not burnout

Down time, some quiet, a couple moments of peace between one emotional, heavy day in patient rooms and family waiting rooms and another heavy, emotional grief group tonight… I spoke with a young man today as we reflected on finding our path and doing what we feel most passionate about. I told him about my work, something he seemed genuinely interested in after he completes his two years in college missions work for the Catholic church. “You should do it,” I said. “It’s such good work and so rewarding… as long as you don’t mind being heart-broken every day!” We laughed, or maybe I did so I wouldn’t start crying. He noted that it must be a lot of emotional burnout.

Emotional burnout? No… Emotional burden. That’s what I would say about what it is like to do the work I do. And I feel that carrying this with people is an honor and a privilege. Getting close to them and what they are going through, even for a few moments, changes me as much as it might change them. It is good work. And it kicks my ass sometimes.

I can’t even begin to describe how much sticks with me. In two weeks… no let’s make it one. Drug overdose, suicide by hanging, death after death, cancer, depression, abuse, three hospitals in one month… it all makes me want to weep. I started up with a new round of grief group which is a whole other level for me, being with men and women for six weeks (more if I was with them in the hospital) as they process really complicated grief sometimes that they have been hanging onto for two or more years.

So I grieve. Martin Prechtel writes, “It’s definitely safer to not actively grieve in the modern situation. But the modern world is definitely no as sane as it thinks it is to have lost the arts of grief and praise. There has to be a way.” I, personally, got us a puppy, what Prechtel calls, a “grief orphan,” because animals can absorb grief in a way that people often can’t. I don’t have such good ways of grieving on a daily day basis. Probably because I don’t have such a good habit for praising, something Prechtel notes goes hand in hand with grief. The world itself needs us to grief as much as it needs us to praise. We grieve life we have loved and we praise life we are gifted with. Read The Smell of Rain on Dust. It’s a start.

So all of this does really become an emotional burden. I was asked once how I am doing with all this. My response was to start shuffling my feet with my head down as I said, “Like this.” But emotional burdens are not bad. They are not something to be avoided as much as they are to be welcomed as ways to draw ourselves deeper into life as the world experiences it, in all her mystery. Emotional burdens make us wider, more able to embrace those who hurt, both human and more-than-human. I know I want to see life as it happens, not pretend it is different than as it is. This is the mystic way. There is room for grief as much as there is room for the kind of praise that makes me want to whistle to the chickadee as he sings his spring song, “YOOUUU WHOOO.” . I walked to my car last week as a crow cawed. “HELLOOOO CROOOWW!” I said… and he kept right on making his racket, with that wild bobbing head thing that crows do when they make a lot of racket. But he flew along with me greeting me after a long day.

Praise eases the burden. Using my language, the true power of the human being. Recognizing life in its many forms as it happens, even through death. Glory to the world and to the Life-Force that flows through it all.


The Sick and Aging are part of the community

We in our modern society tend to build upon a myth of an ideal society, consisting of selected and approved individuals – of “normal” human beings, with average intelligence, average bodily health and with a sufficient degree of psychic maturity. These selected and privileged individuals have – it is true – the obligation on their shoulders, in the name of humanity, to take care of the others who do not belong to this class of the “true ” society. This kind of care does not, however, acknowledge the sick as belonging to the body, unless they recover. One might say the sick people do not belong… The prevalance of this idea among us is obvious if we think of how we speak of the sick [person‘s] return to society, as if [one] had not been in [the] society while sick – especially if [one] had been in the hospital. Racial discrimination is not in any way an isolated phenomena among us! It is as though the human defects and illness do not belong to our proper life and that individuals who had by accident succumbed to the fate of being ill (or dying!) were not actual, proper members of society-unless they recovered-unless they could be made healthy again.“ (Dr Martti Siirala)

The failing aged will never be made healthy again, they will never again become proper members of a society of the well, so we must invite them into a community where membership is not dependent on health and productivity. To tell someone yes, your life is over and you feel useless, but you are not an outcast and I will not shun you, requires that we look into the mirror and accept our own aging selves, accept the part of us that is infirm, incontinent, and unproductive. This acceptance, to be a source of hope, must go beyond recognition; it must be a deep form of acceptance, “an entrance into the fact that takes hold of the fact, but not with the grip of evil.”

William Lynch recalls a Christian legend about the wicked angels who fell from heaven because they were given an anticipatory vision of Christ‘s humanity and refused to adore it. They cared only for the light.

– from The Dark Night of Hope, Annette Brownlee

You shall know the “***”, and the “***” shall…

The saying goes, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” There’s so much to this, and Jesus’ words have been used in so many different ways, by Christians and non-Christians alike. Truly, speaking truthfully about truth or Truth is no small task and perhaps best done with humility and much care. I will make an attempt, as this concept has been spiraling in my brain and spirit for days. This will all likely be a bit of a mind bender… but after all, truth should not be settled on too easily.

I do believe in truth or – maybe “and” too – Truth. I definitely believe in freedom and that living in truth, speaking truthfully with care not to speak un-truth, and pursuing the true can lead to freedom. The problem is, often what we tell others is Truth, is really truth but not true and is more akin to belief, opinion, or perception. Some things that are true actually DID happen and some things that are true did not happen. So when we offer our truth as THE Truth to someone, for whom it is not true, it doesn’t create freedom it creates division or worse, enslavement. In this regard, I hope everything that I write here can be affirmed as true. I will let you wonder where the big “T’s” and little “t’s” go, and what it really means to differentiate between different kinds of truth.

Jesus prefaces his statement about truth and freedom with “If you remain (abide/continue with) my word (logo – divine-inspired creative speaking), you truly are my disciples.” Jesus, the masterful teacher that he was, assured those who were with him that if they lived into the things he was speaking of, they would come to know the truth and this would lead to freedom. I think any good teacher, who believes in what they are saying and has tuned his or her ear to the movement of the divine would say something similar. Because it is true. Jesus plays with the words and concepts of “truth,” “father,” “belief,” “knowing,” and “death” until those around him wonder what he is talking about and ask “Who ARE you?”

I dare say, we would be wise to learn that words and how they are communicated are powerful and have significant effect. When I speak to my patients, to my family, even to strangers I want to speak freedom-making truth. But if what I am saying is my belief of what is true and not true for all, this sets someone apart from me. Now they have to think about whether they agree or disagree, whether their beliefs are the same or different. While this is not necessarily bad, it is not helpful when I imply that they can’t experience “freedom” like I do unless they assent to my truth.

There is a difference between “Life gives us joy and sorrow, living and dying, healing and sickness. It is possible for us to get through this, to live with this, to learn from this, and find fulfillment” and “God has a plan for us and wants to teach us through our difficulty. He doesn’t give us more than we can bear, and if we put our trust in Jesus, we can find the peace we are looking for.” The former is true is true for all, no matter what they believe and the latter is true for some and requires certain faith, theology, and doctrinal beliefs. I might believe the latter, but unless I say, “In my belief, God has a plan for ME…” and “If I put MY trust in Jesus…” etc, I am potentially offering division rather than an invitation to freedom. If I own it is as my truth, it moves from just being a belief to one that is true for all (i.e. it truly is true that this is my belief and I am aware that it might not be yours).

So what is true is not always truth and what is truth is not always true. Some things that happen are true and some things that happen are not true. Some things that are true didn’t happen and some things that didn’t happen are not true (let’s not try to assert those too much shall we?). Let us be people who vigorously and carefully assert those things that give freedom for all, not just for ourselves. Let us learn to craft our words in inspired ways that can be wholly true and truly freedom-inviting.

“Coping” as a couple

I like this photo, because it was taken in a good moment. I can’t even say, a good day, because our ebbing and flowing these days does not even happen on a daily basis. I am constantly reminded that the photos we take and the posts we make are often made when we are at least good enough to reach out to the outside world. They are only part of the picture though, for me, for Kat, and I would assume for any of us. I can demonstrate some strength, Kat can offer some wisdom and insight… but that’s on the good days… I mean, in the good moments.

On the bad days In the bad moments, it is a nightmare for us. Kat’s need for emotional expression and care clashing with my need to have space, to do, and to NOT talk. There is a chasm there, enough for either of us to wonder (Kat out loud and me inside), is our marriage going to make it?!? More of this later… and note that I wouldn’t go as far as to really believe that there is good/bad in the difficulty of “coping” as a couple, but the shoe fits. What I can say is, it is agonizingly hard. I never thought I would say, “Fuck you!” to anyone, let alone my own wife. And I never imagined that word would be used so often in my marriage relationship. Well, the woman that Life sent my way to love (and to duke it out with) for all my days, or hers, was a glorious surprise and yes, we swear… these days, often. Life did not see fit to give either of us a life of daffodils and moonbeams, and this is our lot. But damn,  we love us some good flowers and a good full moon. We know, though, that we only love the flowers so much because we know that one day, they will not be. And we only love that moon so much because we know that it will wane and grow dark.

41s6e7oy8yl-_sx331_bo1204203200_“Coping” is used so much in the hospital, in therapy, in chaplaincy-talk and I don’t like it. It smacks of “getting by” or something passive that happens as a result of stress that we may or may not be able to make a conscious choice about. I like the term “adaptive strategies” rather than coping skills, as adapting and strategizing are active and intentional. I steal the term from Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin from a book that they wrote entitled Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn. I use this resource extensively and it has been so very helpful in my work with grief groups and supporting those in the hospital and in my spiritual direction sessions. Doka and Martin’s way of framing grief styles has given me the awareness that Kat and I, in all of our shitty annoying processes, are not better or worse in how we grieve, we are just different.

Without divulging their entire theory and getting into too many spoilers, Doka and Martin assert that grievers exist on a spectrum between intuitive and instrumental grief. Intuitive grievers are affective in their grief, feeling strong and powerful feelings, and needing to vocalize their grief process. Instrumental grievers are doers, needing time and space to process, think, and make meaning of their grief. They have emotions, but they are much less dynamic and vibrant than those of the intuitive. Men and women fall somewhere on this spectrum, tending more towards some blend of the two poles. It is far from gender-prescriptive, but men tend to fall more on the instrumental and women more towards intuitive.

The very distinct benefit of seeing grievers on a continuum is that there is affirmation for a less emotional style of grieving. For years, therapists, chaplains, and grief “specialists” have said that the only way to process grief is to feel all the feelings. Even in chaplaincy residency, I was expected to verbalize feelings, verbalize feelings, verbalize feelings… maybe much more than is within my capacity. There was benefit to it, but I am a chaplain, not Joe Smith who works his blue collar job and fishes and hunts in his free time. Many people, men AND women, are active and cognitive with their grief, even when they are unconscious that it is their grief that they are working through.

Just last night, to give a perfect example, I got home from my final grief group session in this series and said to Kat, “I can’t talk much right now. I need to sit with this last session and decompress from it.” She said a few minutes later, “You can’t really support me in the way I need to be supported, can you?”… because she wanted to vent and feel. My response was, “Well, I support you in many ways, don’t I? Can I be the support for all your feelings? Probably not. No more than you can get up and go to work for me, when I don’t even want to get out of bed. But I have to do that. I have to get my ass going and do it anyway.” So this morning, as I walked out the door at 6:15, I said to my sleeping wife, “Can you go to work for me today?”

“Sure,” she said as she rolled over and went back to sleep.

And this is how we do. It sucks to not get all your needs met from your spouse. But how many people when I ask how they are handling things as a couple (insert “coping”) say, “Not good. Really not good…” They don’t know why, though, that’s the thing. I just want to say, come to my grief group. It will help. Kat and I, as much as it pains us, know that this is just going to hurt. It sucks. It really fucking sucks. But we do the best we can. In our worst moments, we can’t even talk to each other. In our best moments, we hold each other. And most days somewhere in between, we ask all the unanswerable questions, swear cry and talk, and at least sit next to each other on the couch while we are on our smart phones.

Dying well… one of the most important things you can do

This is a general summary of a talk I did at First Congregational Church in Oshkosh, WI on November 27th, 2016. It is part of a three part series on End of Life, Dying, and living into the seasons of Life.

We are going to be talking about dying and end of life. Please sit with that for a moment. What does it do to you? What feelings rise up in you as you consider the end of your life or the idea and reality of death?

There are a few things I do not know, a few things I do know, and a few things I have seen enough that I am very convinced of. What I do not know is what will happen after I die. I mean, really, how can I know this for certain?!? Yes, I guess there are stories of those who have died and come back. You can believe what you want to about them, but I’m not certain. What I do know is that death happens only once and it is as much a part of life as being born. It is literally woven into the fabric of the Earth. I also know that life itself is dependent on death. The very soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals and so on is made up of dead material. This gives me, as a Nature guy, significant meaning. My body is going to become compost one day and is going to give life to other living beings! This may not work for you. That’s ok. We each have our ways of making meaning of this experience, and that is what we are talking about.

The thing I am thoroughly convinced of is this: Over the course of our lives, we are putting together a story of what it is going to be like when it is our time. Both positive AND negative. Every experience we have affects how we will feel about our own death. So if we have loved ones who have died with pain and suffering or afraid and resentful, this is going into our consideration that this is what death will be like. If we have people we know who have died with grace, peace, and surrounded by those who they love, this will be added to our story. THIS is why how we go about our dying is perhaps THE most important thing in our entire lifespan that we can offer to those who come after us. This affects our community, our family, generations to come. Stories (the stories that future dying ones tell themselves) are told about us!

Stephen Jenkinson says that dying is never an individual event. Every death is a community event and it has ripples that extend farther than we can fathom. For generations to come and, depending on what you believe, from ancestors before. We get one chance to do it right… or I would say, well enough.

If you could put your experience into five words, how would you do that?

You’ll have to bear with me as I try to put these things in linear form. I am used to talking about these things with one person or a family and they come in response to their own story. Each idea comes with 45 minutes of dialog and our time is so limited here. So I am offering a few ideas and hoping some of them are helpful.

It used to be that people would die in the upstairs bedroom with family all around. It was more of a natural thing. But now it happens behind closed doors and the doctor comes out and tells the family that grandma has passed. So a lot of people don’t know what to expect and what might happen. The perspective you’ll get from a chaplain is much different perhaps than one you’d get from a doctor. I think we have to remember, and I tell patients this all the time, doctors are trained to heal. It is their mission to fix. I have seen there really is as much variety of feelings about end of life, and levels of comfortability, in doctors as there are in patients and families. You’d think that if a doctor is around death so often, they’d be more comfortable with it but this is not always true. But dying is not something to be fixed. I hear from medical staff, “So and so is depressed. She wants to die. Call the chaplain and get her some antidepressants.” But so often this is someone who is 95 years old and is all alone! I tell her she has every good reason to want to die. This is ok. Sometimes our spirits and our minds are ready to go but the body is hanging on.

Some people say we should live until we are dead. They don’t want to know about their dying. So they want to go out in their sleep or end their life prematurely. Stephen Jenkinson says it’s not the being dead they are afraid of but the dying. “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying,” he says. I have said it before and will say it many times, dying happens to all health, mature, and connected to the Earth beings. It is a physical AND a spiritual experience and the more connected we are to the NATURAL way of things, the more we will be prepared for our own death. But that is the topic for the next talk.