First published March 18, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
What do you do when a dying congregant tells you that you are the light of her life?
In order to graduate from Chicago Theological Seminary and pursue parish ministry in the United Church of Christ, I had to do something called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). This is a form of ministerial training that can take place in a nursing home, a teen homeless shelter, a hospital, or even a not-for-profit. What makes it unique from a regular internship is daily time spent with others in the program to debrief feelings and receive reflections from others on how you handled given situations.
I chose to do my CPE unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH). A hospital that included a level 1 trauma emergency room, high-risk infant care, a large cancer facility, and all the other kind of health needs in between, I felt that NMH would give me the range of health crises I might encounter in parish ministry.
A requirement of CPE at NMH was overnight on-call shifts. This meant arriving at the hospital by 8:30 a.m. one day, then staying through noon the next day. We signed up for our shifts the second day of class.
I was completely terrified, so I volunteered to go first and get it out of the way. When my supervisor asked me why I was so scared I burst into tears:
“Because of dead babies.”
“What about a baby who has died?”
“It is too horrible. What if I cry?”
I was afraid that I would become overwhelmed by grief and sob, becoming useless to provide any comfort to the grieving parents.
So my first on-call shift began. A few hours in I was paged to a room where an adult man had died. He was surrounded by his wife and two college-aged daughters. I was nervous about the body but directed my attention to the grieving family. We talked, then we put hands on their loved one, and prayed.
I did not cry.
I did, though, eventually baptize two infants, one who had already died and one who was about to be pulled off life-support. Neither was more than a pound in weight. Their delicacy was indescribable, as was the fierceness of their parents’ love. The drops of baptismal water on their heads looked enormous, yet safe, even healing.
I did not cry.
But yesterday I sat with a woman who has lived a rich, full, passionate life. A woman whose politics and work I have admired greatly. A woman who is releasing herself into eternity’s other stream. This is the woman who the day before had said I was the light of her life.
As my CPE supervisor said that day before my shift, my emotions were an honest response to situations. And tears could not harm anyone. In fact, they might be a gift to those who witness them. As hard as we pastors work to be aware of and manage our feelings, to ensure that we don’t project our own needs and emotional agendas on others, there is no cause to stop up grief.
“What does this make you think of?” the dying woman’s daughter asked me.
And after, we feasted on the Word through Holy Communion, and I blessed her feet, her hands, her head, and her heart. I kissed her forehead twice, looked into her eyes, and told her I loved her.
There is no one way to walk with people as their pastor, but there is never anything wrong with letting your love for them show in your tears. If we pastors are to be truth-tellers, the truth is that death is scary and sad. And the truth is that there is eternal life in love.