Nurse Comforting Patient

Dec 16: What Is Between the Breaths

Friday, December 16, 2016

What Is Between the Breaths
Luke 1:26-38

“But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

As a chaplain working in the medical field for the past two years, I know Mary’s perplexed look well. When a chaplain walks into a hospital or hospice room, a patient or her loved ones in this Western medical system often ask, “What sort of greeting might this be? What does it mean that you’re here? Am I dying? Is she dying soon?”

I usually answer those questions with one or two of my own. “What do you feel? What does it mean to you that I’m here?”

Our bodies usually know how to do these natural things, to conceive, to bear children, to breathe, and to pump the heart. To die. If we listen, we will be able to hear our bodies. Our bodies know how to die. There are physical signs of imminent natural death. Blood pressure lowers. The pulse either increases or decreases. Body temperature fluctuates between fever and chills. Breathing changes and can become irregular puffs or gasps. Skin color changes, from flushed to pale to bluish and back again.

A dying person’s appetite for food and for socialization decreases, often distressing family and loved ones, and then near the end, their lucidity and appetite might suddenly surge, often giving false hope that the dying person might not die after all.

It can be perplexing to anyone not familiar with death.

Earlier this year, I stood at the hospital bedside of a dying man, surrounded by the man’s friends, case managers, and clients from a local aid agency. We could all see the tattoos of the names of his long-estranged children on his arm. I held a phone up, video chatting so those children, who lived out of state, could see their dying father and say goodbye. We watched as the nurse felt for a pulse, and counted the breaths. The man’s son and daughter told him, “It’s OK for you to go, dad. We love you. We don’t want you to suffer. We love you.” His friends squeezed his hand, patted his arm, stroked his head, talked about how stubborn he was, and also how goofy and wild his sense of humor was. They asked the nurse if the man could hear them. “Maybe. Possibly.” The hearing is one of the last senses to stop functioning.

As the man took a gasping breath, and 15 seconds passed, everyone in the room held their breath too. Then he took another breath. Thirty seconds passed. Then another. Thirty more seconds. The nurse said, “He’s gone.”

The man’s children on the phone thanked the hospital staff and his friends for being there, so he wasn’t alone, and for giving them the chance to see their father for the last time. I don’t know why they had been estranged. I’m sure there was all manner of hurt that had passed between them over the decades. I’m sure not all the hurt was erased in that moment of death. Death is a perplexing process. So is reconciliation.

I have been asked all kinds of questions, as God’s perceived spokesperson: “We prayed for healing. Why didn’t healing come?” “We never got to say goodbye. Will God give us time to say goodbye?” “Why is she dying?” “Why is he taking so long to die?” “Am I doing what God wants me to do?”

The answer is often the same as the answer Gabriel gives to Mary as her body enters another natural and perplexing process.

“God is with you. Do not be afraid.”

Dori Kay Hjalmarson
SFTS M.Div. 2015
Hospice Chaplain, Albuquerque, NM

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