How I Talk to People Before They Die

A woman in a hospital bed, the image blurred
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by BSIP/UIG via Getty Images.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This diary by a hospital chaplain in New Jersey has been edited and condensed from an interview with Aymann Ismail.

You’re never going to know what the right thing to say is. So silence is often your best friend. For two reasons. One, silence offers you the space to get to know what to say. It allows you to be present in a way where the moment washes over you so you can become inspired. Your gut tells you what to say. That’s the right thing to say or do. And No. 2, it offers a space for the other person to say what they want to say or do what they want to do, or to just cry or just be in the silence.

I’m a hospital chaplain in New Jersey. We’re an epicenter of the virus. We have more deaths every day now than New York. I’m still working. I’m calling patients directly to their room. Phone calls are just much quicker than my in-person visits. I think silences in person are different because when you’re sitting with someone and both of you are silent, sometimes that’s really what you need. You just need somebody to be in the space with you and just feeling it with you. You feel their warmth, you get their energy, you don’t need words. But over the phone, silences can still offer an opportunity for somebody to articulate something that they wouldn’t have otherwise. But the warmth of it isn’t there. And so the phone call ends up being a little more rushed, because I don’t think either one of us is as comfortable just sitting on the phone and with silence as we would be if I was in the room with them.

If I think I know what to expect from a patient, it ends up being to my disadvantage. I’m actually better as a chaplain when I’m surprised, because then I have no option but to be in the moment and figure it out as it comes. But if I’m prepared and I know what I’m getting into, I get nervous, and I start thinking, What am I going to say? before I’ve even met the patient. Instead of listening, I’m asking myself: What am I going to say? What am I going to do? How am I going to be the best chaplain I can be right now? And that gets in the way.

My best advice to you is forget what you think you know, and just listen.

It’s hard to do this personally. My co-worker had been struggling with cancer for a while. He died about a month ago, when we were still in the first month of quarantine. And at that point I was working from home, remotely. I felt really distanced from him and from the people that were grieving him. I didn’t make it to his Zoom memorial. A part of me thinks I purposely didn’t make it.

Something about the Zoom stuff to me—it’s reducing us to 2D versions of spiritual beings. I just wanted to be in a room with people who knew him. I had nothing to say. I just wanted to feel other people who knew him. That would have been enough. But that wasn’t an option. I don’t really know if I was able to fully grieve him. My heart was heavy for several days, but I haven’t had that moment yet of going back to the office in the hospital and feeling his absence, you know? It was all just emails. So I don’t know if my chaplaincy helps me grieve better, but I do know that this experience helps me empathize with people who are losing people at this time.

You don’t have a final goodbye, which for a lot of people helps with closure. It’s going to take a lot to accept that, that that’s the way it is. It happened that way. It doesn’t mean that that person wasn’t deeply loved and didn’t know that they were deeply loved. It doesn’t mean that you can’t share your love for that person with other people who also loved that person.

The best we can do is to speak to other people who also knew that person and share memories. Talk about how they made you laugh, or they made you angry. Laugh about that because it doesn’t matter anymore.

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