Don’t the Dead Take their Time Leaving?

After my father died, I became fascinated about where he went. Someone came to take his body out of our house and to a funeral home. He was cremated and his remains were put into an urn. But he was gone. Gone where? Where was the essence of him?

I remember my siblings, mother and I all gathered around his hospital bed in our den. His yellow face dropped to the side as he took one last sucking inhalation. We waited for another one, but it didn’t come. His mouth was still partly open. One thing I knew—he was no longer lying in that bed.

In the Celtic tradition, after a death, a window is opened to allow the spirit of the deceased to leave the house. No one can stand or block the path to the window as this may prevent the spirit from leaving. And to go where? Heaven? “Heaven is a place a place where nothing, nothing ever happens,” the Talking Heads sing in their song of the same name. We didn’t open a window.  Did his spirit stay home?

I do believe he was free from struggling—from air hunger and from pain. His aura, his spirit, was released. Some religions believe we return to the light we originally came from. From light you came and to light you shall return. Maybe he went back to the light.

We sprinkled his ashes in his favorite spot, over the bay near our family summer home, on Cape Cod. He had spent many long summer days there on his boat, the Sea-Ges, with family and friends. The bay seemed the perfect place for him to ‘hang out’ for eternity. “After all,” a friend said, “the dead just keep being dead.” So, he may as well be in his special place.

A recurring feeling began to tug at me after my father’s death-I should investigate hospital chaplaincy. Was this urge just part of my grieving process? And what was I thinking? I was thirty-five years old, recently divorced, and unmoored. To become a hospital chaplain one has to get a Master’s of Divinity, which means going to seminary. More school?! Was I crazy? My family probably thought so.

But the idea wouldn’t go away, so I started with a training internship for wannabe chaplains at Duke Medical Center. I decided to test the waters before committing to three years of graduate school. Maybe I would finally get this nagging idea out of my system.

I was assigned to the oncology unit where my father had been treated. I even worked with some of the doctors and staff that had been my father’s caregivers. Sitting and listening to patients felt natural to me, comfortable, right. Being affirmed by my supervisors stoked my confidence.  I felt close to my cancer patients, especially a young, 37-year-old patient named Danny, who had the same kind of lung cancer as my father. With his long hair and playboy bunny tattoos, Danny was different from my other patients. As my supervisor said after a joint visit with him, “They seem like a rough crowd”

It’s true, Danny and his friends were kind of scary. I was definitely a work in progress, but coming to terms with my own loneliness and sadness helped me to offer ‘hospitality’ to Danny and his friends. The Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron refers to this as ‘knowing your darkness.’ She says the more you work through your own suffering, the more space you have for others.

“I want you to pray with me,” Danny said soon after his diagnosis of lung cancer was handed down. “I am not going to just lie here and die,” he told me.

“You sound determined,” I said trying to stay with him. “I will pray with and for you.”

This is how my relationship began with Danny, a man who captivated me during his month-long hospitalization. And although I did not know it then, this formative experience was one that would help confirm the type of work I hoped to do in the future.

Danny never got to the chemotherapy stage. He fought a lung infection his whole stay in the hospital before ever starting treatment. When Danny died, I concentrated intently on his face, as if searching for something. His eyes were still half-open and although I tried to close his lids, they seemed stuck. But I kept looking. Much later, I realized I was searching for my father. It was as if I was waiting to see if I would meet him there, at Danny’s bedside. “Is that you, Dad? Are you there?”

Each time I was paged to a death, a part of me half expected to see the face I had seen during the first death I witnessed. As I peeked around the customary curtain and saw the stilled body, whose whole history was a mystery to me, I was also looking, hoping, for a glimpse of my father.  Maybe my father was there.

A few years later, I went to see a “consciousness educator,” who was part psychic and part telepathic communicator. A friend I knew from playing tennis had gone to see her and said she was amazing. What if what she has to tell me is bad? I thought, but I went anyway. Her name was Tomeiko and she had previously worked at Duke in their paranormal studies department. When I sat down, Tomeiko instructed me to write my first name in script and to list five more first names. She didn’t ask me anything about myself or my family. I wrote my name and five others, one of which was my father’s. She took the thin paper from me, held it tightly and ran her fingers over my name and each of the following ones.

“I know why you came to see me,” she shared, halfway through her discourse on my life and its trajectory. “It’s because of your father. Let’s speak to him and see what he has to say.”

Tomeiko was silent for several minutes, her eyes closed, holding my little wrinkled paper.

Suddenly her mannerisms changed and seemed vaguely familiar. Her voice deepened and took on my father’s tone and inflection, “I’d like to be your helper. I am evolving. Pray for me. Think of me when you are reading something really exciting. Call my name.  Imagine you are speaking to my spirit or my mind.”

“Where are you, Dad?” I blurted.

“I am exactly where you are, how about that? Keep me alive. I love you.”

Next year, my father will have been dead for 25 years.  I no longer ask where Dad is. I know he is near. I can hear his voice as I work with the dying and their families. I also feel his closeness through honking geese, blue heron sightings, and the stray baby bird feathers I constantly find.  As a palliative care chaplain, I share with patients and families that it’s okay to release our human bodies.

As W.H. Auden wrote, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

 

 

 

Heidi Gessner

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Heidi Gessner, MDiv, BCC, BCC, is an Ordained United Church of Christ Minister who serves as the palliative care chaplain and bereavement coordinator of University of North Carolina Hospitals, a level one trauma center. As the bereavement coordinator, her main priority is connecting with the family members who have had a loved one die in the hospital. Her specialty is connecting with these family members, staff, as well as community members, and helping them feel they are not alone. For in her deepest suffering after her father died, she experienced the presence of Love. She was so overwhelmed by this sense of a benevolent Presence, it changed the course of her life. The awareness of being cared for and connected to something bigger came suddenly, and helped her want to share this feeling with others. Heidi is also a certified life coach, who creatively cultivates hope, nurtures growth, and encourages people to be good stewards of their grief, and to learn from it when they are ready. She helps them harness the transformational power of loss to become their wisest and most compassionate selves. Heidi is also a wedding officiant!

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