'To give space for the story to be told so as to enable healing'
Do you wonder about healing? I do! When the sick or dying speak, they are engaging with a reality that faces each of us- our vulnerability. I believe at these times a very important conversation is taking place and as chaplain it is often my role to be present to the murmurings and questions, answering, if possible, John O' Donoghue’s question, 'Why did this sickness visit?'
Simply put, I have the wonderful privilege of being “invited in” by patients, their families and staff to share their journey of life, the moments of “truth”, the “shock” —or for some the “relief”— of a diagnosis, the treatment, the acceptance and the quest for healing in its many subtle expressions.
Just the other day I visited with Eileen, a mum of eight, in her 80s, who is now on the dying journey. Over the years I have watched Eileen live with sickness, undergo chemo and eventually be healed. Unfortunately the cancer returned recently and she is journeying to death. Eileen has expressed she is ready and now my role is to support and to encourage her family to listen to the language of their dying Mum - the language of getting ready, of letting go and recalling of memories and people who are long gone.
I believe such language should not be devalued, ignored or assumed to be effects of drugs. To do so is to deny all involved a subtle conversation of heart and a real preparation to let go. My role includes a “mapping of the journey”, which encourages her family to see the little “gems” that indicate their Mum is preparing to go and hopefully facilitate a soulful journey for everyone involved. In the sitting, the watching and waiting, there is a shift to a heart-conversation. I believe it is in hearing the storytelling, the memory sharing, the subtle “language of making peace” and prayer (in its many expressions) that an inner dialogue continues and families notice the gentle shift in themselves. And then, very quietly, we can let our loved one go.
We prayed a prayer of blessing (adapted from Joyce Rupp 'Out of the Ordinary') which enabled Eileen’s family to give their Blessing of Goodbye. For me, this is also a moment of healing. While sad, there is a wholesome blessing for Mum’s journey to God. And for family, it enables them to grieve well.
I love my work. I am invited in by people who offer the gift of their life at that moment. Every day I get to see with “new eyes” what is important in life: our relationship with ourselves, with each other and for some our relationship with God and our Higher Being. Fr John O Shea says, 'In life we tell and retell our stories until we get them right'. The details may change, but the meaning of the story deepens and is revealed. It is my job to give space for the story to be told so as to enable healing. The invitation is to: be available and attentive; be a friendly presence as people meander in the minefield of life, feelings and sickness; be led by the person before me and to be a compassionate presence.
The Emmaus story inspires me- listening, walking alongside, not taking over and quietly breaking bread. Both of us are enriched by this coming together. Elizabeth Kubler Ross wonders: Why do we not trust the spiritually -in- tune part of ourselves, always acting from our practical heads and not listening in wonder? My reason d’etre is to encourage others to tune into this every day and let our spirituality reveal our sacredness and beauty, even in the midst of sickness.
Why did I come to chaplaincy? I don’t know, I believe God has a plan! Years ago, I was visiting my Nan in hospital. She had many of us fussing around. I noticed a lady who was endlessly unsettled when we came to visit Nan (too many grandchildren telling their stories!) Kathleen never seemed to have visitors and had dementia; we were sent with biscuits or soaps etc. When I visited she was crying quietly. I was embarrassed to leave her, so I sat and stayed with her. I saw what time spent, now we call it presence, brought- a gentle stillness/healing.
Sometimes as I walk about, I think of Kathleen and say a prayer for her, very thankful for the gift of her insight and her legacy. On these days when we celebrate World Day of the Sick, we remember all those pilgrims who go to Lourdes and all those at home who are ill, may they experience God’s presence and healing touch through those who care for them.
Messages to: Fiona Galligan rsm
'When the Dying Speak: How to Listen and Learn from Those Facing Death 'by Ronald Wooten-Green & Joseph M. Champlin, Loyola Press (2001)
'Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom' by John O'Donoghue, Harper Perennial (1998)
'The American Book of Living and Dying: Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain' by Richard F. Groves & Henriette Anne Klauser, Celestial Arts (2009)
Image: Stock photo. Used under CCO