by Beryl Gorbman
This is a conversation with Michael H., who is the chief chaplain of one of Seattle’s large hospital systems. We talked over a relaxed dinner at Jackson Street Co-Housing, the “intentional community” where my friend Susan lives.
Michael has an easy, relaxed way about him. I would bet that no one who has ever met him dislikes him. Not that he tries to win friendships – he is just naturally empathic and accepting, even about the smallest things.
Michael always knew he wanted to work with people in an intimate, helping way, so he joined the seminary after high school. In his third year there, he did an internship in a hospital in San Francisco and basically never left the hospital environment. Michael estimates that in San Francisco he was at the bedside of close to 1,000 AIDS patients.
He was raised on a farm, which helped him, he says, to see the natural order of things, to see animals born, procreate, and die. This gave him the gift of being able to see death as part of life and thus find it less frightening.
Since the recent survey of opinions on death published here, I thought it would be good to speak with someone who had seen death from many perspectives. I was hoping for answers to some universal questions. Unfortunately, Michael is a modest person and has no answers. His talent is helping you to find your own.
We talked about his 30 years of experience working with the dying – the joy and the sorrow of it.
His prevailing message to those of us privileged to be with a dying person is – listen. You don’t have to talk about God to a dying person. If you make room for them to talk, they will guide you to whatever is important to them.
On the survey, it was clear that most people fear death. Michael says that a lot of dying people have guilty secrets they’ve never confessed to anyone and sometimes his most profound contribution is allowing them to talk about their lives without fear of being judged. It’s odd for me as an adult to think that before I die I might find it comforting to relate to another person all the bad things I’ve done. I like to think I’m independent and don’t need any of this cozy stuff. But probably, I’m wrong.
People have been taught that Jesus loves them, says Michael, but somehow that isn’t comforting when you think you’ve done something so awful that even Jesus might condemn rather than accept you. And patients who are suffering, once they are able to place their burden on another person, such as a chaplain or a friend, often die quickly afterwards.
When a person is dying in fear and feels abandoned by all, it is not helpful, Michael says, to tell him that God is near and all is okay. How does this address the massive desolation of the dying? The best thing we can do for them, he says, is ask them, “What can we do to help you?”
“What kind of god would condemn you as you are dying?” Michael asks his patients.
By telling patients that you honor their truths and accept them, often their story will come out. Sadnesses that they have carried for years. There is a relative they haven’t spoken to for decades. They were unfaithful to their spouse. They stole money from a business partner. Just listen, says Michael. By bringing things out into the open, the patient can be greatly relieved and maybe even make a phone call to the daughter he had shunned.
Why do people fight death? Michael says we have an innate animal will to live and will try to forestall death until things that have been bothering us have been resolved. What greater satisfaction can there be than helping people toward this resolution? In our lives, we will all have the opportunity to do this. You can give a dying person permission to move on by letting them know you love them, that you have benefitted from their participation in your life, and that it is okay if they go now.
Michael doesn’t buy the concept that Jesus died for our sins. What does that actually mean? He, as an ordained Lutheran clergyman, feels that this idea has been promulgated by rulers wishing to instill guilt and shame on populations so they can be controlled. Suffering serves no purpose, he says. It does not lead you to God.
But Jesus himself, he says, “got it.” Alone in his day, he advocated for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, extended kindness where none had been, while established religious powers used God for their own purposes.
Michael says that a lot of dying patients are angry. A chaplain can ask why they are angry, hear them out, and give them an opportunity to blow. This often brings peace.
If a dying person is terrified about physical matters, like pain, a good guide can empower them to speak up to their doctors. Help them find their own voices and take control over their own deaths.
People need to know that they aren’t alone in the universe; that when they die they will become part of a universal cosmic consciousness and in that sense, never die.
Michael says that right now is all any of us has.
I asked Michael if he believed in an afterlife, in the presence of souls floating around out there. He smiled and said that he had several times, when he had a decision to make, felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. He can feel the physical presence of his father’s hand. There is no doubt that his father is with him.
Michael has had three prevailing dreams about his father. In the first one, he is simply sitting next to him in a small boat. In the second, they are in the boat in a raging storm. The boat goes down, he is terrified, and wakes up. In the third dream, Michael is in the boat alone. As it drifts beneath a lovely sunset, Michael feels his father’s hand on his shoulder.
I told him that although I pooh-pooh all that cosmic stuff, that I have had similar experiences and told him how I had seen my recently deceased grandfather waving at me from the bottom of the UP escalator to the Staten Island Ferry.
“I don’t know exactly what it is,” he says, “but there is something out there.”
Probably, Michael says, many of us have these mystical experiences in our lives and they are to be treasured, not feared.
“They’re out there,” he says. “Part of the cloud of witnesses. The community of saints.”
Some people die angry, some die peacefully, some die in fear. In the words of Frank Sinatra, Michael says,”In the end the dying all let us know, I’ll do it my way.”
Right now is all we have. Enjoy it, make your reality the best it can be.
After talking to this wonderful man, my wish is that when I am dying, I have someone like him to sit with me, hold my hand, and listen. And then be quiet and let me go.