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Stone the Crow

“Stone the crow” a term of surprise or shock of an absurd event.

One sobering conversation has the ability to change your entire course of life. I once found myself sitting in an average middle class, mid-western, rusty mill town, living room. It had all the similarities to the one that I myself have called home. There was a familiarity in that place for me. But this living room had been transformed into a room that was now less about living and more about dying. It had morphed from a place of family closeness and an origin place for so many of this family’s memories into a space of grief.

Days before our encounter, a devastating whirlwind of destruction had swept through the lives of this unsuspecting family. The oxygen tank looked so out of place next to the wall of family photos. The personal supplies left behind from the hospice nurse seemed like they were left in error because adult diapers normally have no business being in the living room. This was their place of refuge after all. The hospital bed stood sorely out of place now and no matter how hard they tried, it just didn’t fit the decor. Instead, the bed took center stage as a kind of beacon that pointed out that illness and suffering were present and a hijacking of peace and security was in play. And somehow a little hidden in this pile of medical equipment and supplies was a giant elephant in the room.

I have since forgotten what the diagnosis was, but a diagnosis of this kind has a unique way of leaving only scorched earth in its wake. Usually, by the time my path crosses with people like this, the picture of what life looks like going forward has started to come into focus. With the coming clarity of a life refocused comes with it an understanding that no matter how hard you try, life will never be the same. 

The family had cleared the room to allow me to have time with the one they call their husband and their Father. They wanted to give us the opportunity to talk. As a chaplain, I am called on to help with the spiritual component that accompanies death. Even with the best training and most acute self-awareness, I am honestly never fully prepared for these types of conversations. “How are you feeling, what about the weather and how about those Browns?” Those things only go so far and rarely do those shallow conversations produce anything fruitful or substantial. It is the hard conversations that I am expected to have.

Conversations with patients can sometimes uncover stories of betrayal, bitterness, and unforgiveness as they begin to unravel a lifetime of circumstances and make preparation for their own death. Sometimes, the conversations also point to love, beauty and compassion. When these things are looked at alongside the difficult, the patient hopefully will begin to see a beautiful tapestry of life interwoven and displayed for all their loved ones to see. In whatever impromptu holy space that these conversations happen in, they are necessary and they keep the elephant in the room in check from fully taking over.

There are many things in the human experience that we all share. We carry burdens of failure, pain, shame, unforgiveness, brokenness and the scars of yesterday. No one comes through life unscathed and none of us gets out alive. Aside from a tragic and quick exit from this world, many of us could face a similar end. We too could be faced with a terminal diagnosis and be forced to face our own mortality. In fact, our society doesn’t deal well with death. We try to hide it. Bodies are covered and ushered through the inner corridors of hospitals, away from the public eye. They are removed discreetly with the seeming sleight of hand of the most proficient magician only to reappear in the semi sanitized environment of a funeral home. Places that are far removed from the spaces that we live in each day.

As we wrapped up our time together, the patient, sitting up with the back of his hospital bed raised to the highest upright setting began laughing. Not a deep belly laugh like reacting to a poorly told joke from a nervous chaplain, but a chuckle, like he was in on a joke that no one else was aware of. The words that he left me with were shrouded in absurd laughter and were powerful and true to all of us, “I have never done this before!”

There is no playbook to this death thing.

My Friend

“Spiritual care was offered and declined. The chaplain will remain available at the request of patient/family” This is the usual verbiage I use to document the fact that the patient or family has declined to see the chaplain. The reasons are many and are often understandable. This situation was a little different though, the relationship with the family and the patient was at a boiling point. They were on the edge of crisis due to the illness progression and increased care needs with a pinch of Mother-in-law/ Daughter-in-law tension sprinkled in for some added flair!

A few days after the initial hospice admission was complete the crisis hit. Her family that was providing her day to day care could no longer care for her and all the telltale signs of caregiver burnout were present. We provided respite for the family and she was moved to a facility so that our team and the family could formulate a plan to move forward. I thought I would drop by to check on her and to say hello since I was already at the facility. I knocked and was invited in to introduce myself. I noticed the curtains were drawn closed, the lighting was dim and since she was only going to be staying there for a few days the room seemed sterile as it was void of any personal belongings. One exception of significance was the 8×10 picture of her and her spouse. It was vibrant and colorful against the backdrop of her greyed shadow-filled room. Fresh skin tones, full smiles and a posed embraced in the photo told a story of a loving relationship between her and her spouse. He was gone, he passed away a few years earlier and since then her own health challenges had taken over. Every time he was mentioned in our conversation she would brighten. She happily shared all of their favorite things to do together. They would dance with one another in the living room of their home to the music played on their extensive vinyl record collection. A Ginger Rodgers, Fred Astaire like image came to mind for me but she quickly erased it by sharing that their dances together were less about well time choreography and more about being close to one another. She would glow as she recounted the summer evenings on the back porch of their home in their working-class neighborhood where they shared glasses of wine together. We even learned that we had at one time lived in the same community and frequented the same greasy spoon diner for breakfast. It was one of their favorite spots on Saturday mornings. Something about that cheap diner coffee! In reviewing her life, a central theme became obvious, they were madly in love and he left a huge void in her heart that no one else could fill. 

At the end of our time together that day, I asked If I could come back? She agreed and said that she enjoyed our conversation. As our time together was closing, I asked, “Could I pray for you?” She kindly declined and said that she had her, “own people” to pray with her. I felt bad about assuming that she would want prayer because I failed to learn her background. This made me feel insensitive to her spiritual care needs. I apologized and told her that I meant no disrespect to her and she was gracious and invited me back. 

Our visits would move from her temporary place of respite to a long term care facility. Over the next several weeks we had great conversations about life and love. She seemed to blossom under the care of the facility paired with the team of hospice workers. Her life seemed less dull and more vibrant like the smiles and colors captured in the photo that now held a prominent position on her bedside table. A recent trip to the stylist even left her with the wildest streak of purple hair that matched her personality well. Since my initial visit, I was more mindful of her faith tradition and never fell into the minefield of imposing my traditions again. As a chaplain, I am not an evangelist, not in this setting. I consider myself more like a spiritual guide in a “Choose your own Adventure” book, like the ones that would engross me in elementary school. Each conversation that we had would lead to a new place of discovery and no two discoveries were the same. It was always a beautiful new outcome of her story, not mine. One thing I observed was that I had not seen any support from her faith group. No record in the facility sign-in sheet, no bulletins left behind, no trace of any other visitors except the team of hospice workers. I asked her about it and she sadly said they have lost touch over the years. One thing I am learning is that in many cases death moves in slowly and is present long before the last breath is breathed. It arrives in our lives and begins to march along, bringing a slow rhythm of change. Death seems to start with subtle changes like no longer being able to drive or the inability to attend weekly services. These changes compound until everything is finally taken in the. I asked her, “would you like me to get in touch with them for you?” She excitedly said, “Yes”. She gave me a name and a location. After weeks of messages and unreturned calls, I was driving by her place of worship and noticed a crowd of people exiting the building. I slammed on the brakes and with squealing tires, I turned into the building’s parking lot, scaring the new employee orientee with me that day. I asked for the person I needed to reach and they knew exactly who he was and provided me with his cell number. Mission accomplished!

On my next visit, I learned that her church did get in touch with her. She couldn’t wait to tell me that a bunch of  “her people” came on a Saturday afternoon and brought her favorite home-cooked meal paired with her favorite wine and prayed together according to the traditions of her faith. I considered this a major win in spiritual care for her. 

As things always do, they change. Much like the season we were in was shifting from Autumn to Winter, she too was in transition. The warmer Fall days faded into cooler nights and just as the daylight grew scarcer, so was her time with us. She was sleeping more and growing lethargic.  This had all the sights and sounds that I have grown to recognize, death was near. I spent some time with her at the bedside, talking and just offering a compassionate presence. As we entered the weekend I braced for the likely report of her passing by Monday. On that Monday morning report, I learned she was now alert and oriented. A strong rally that rivaled the strength of my Monday morning coffee, she was back! She was up, talking and living with the same vibrance as the Purple streak she wore in her hair. 

Our relationship was now at a place that allowed for frank conversation. She was not naive to the reality that death was near.  I said, “I thought you were gone” and told her that I had spent some time with her while she rested. She smiled and expressed appreciation. She thanked me for all my visits and we found ourselves in a sacred space where she was able to share some very real feelings and emotions. There was a sense of finality in the room that conveyed a feeling that whatever needs to be said should be said because there would likely not be another opportunity. We laughed together about our first encounter and my offer to pray with her. She must have read me like a book and noticed my embarrassment. When she brought it up again, I apologized quickly one more time. She said, “Oh, it was not an issue and it did not offend me. I’m used to well-meaning people offering prayer.” Her last words to me were ones that gave me a great sense of purpose as a Chaplain. “Besides”, she said, “you did something better, you became my friend.” Just a few days later, my friend was gone…

Stone the Crow

The Sojourning Chaplain

“Stone the crow” a term of surprise or shock of an absurd event.

One sobering conversation has the ability to change your entire course of life. I once found myself sitting in an average middle class, mid-western, rusty mill town, living room. It had all the similarities to the one that I myself have called home. There was a familiarity in that place for me. But this living room had been transformed into a room that was now less about living and more about dying. It had morphed from a place of family closeness and an origin place for so many of this family’s memories into a space of grief.

Days before our encounter, a devastating whirlwind of destruction had swept through the lives of this unsuspecting family. The oxygen tank looked so out of place next to the wall of family photos. The personal supplies left behind from the…

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Introduction

My name is Erik Cremeans, I am a Hospice Chaplain. I am starting this blog to share insight gained from those that are dying. I believe deeply that everyone has a story to be told. People have so much to share about their journey from life to death. As a chaplain I believes my role role is to sojourn with the dying. To go where they lead…like a spiritual sherpa…sharing the load throughout their journey.

I hope to share the beauty of life and death and to share with the reader transformative stories that will remain long after life is over. I will write about love and loss, victories and failure, showing that life is lived on the mountain tops and in the valleys.

So, hopefully some will sojourn with me in sharing the beauty that is found in the stories of life.