I am the Palliative Care Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator for The University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My interest in working with the dying and bereaved began with my own father’s illness and death in 1994. My story is one of transformation, when for the first time God’s presence was palpable.
God found me on my way to visit my ill father. A strange and holy presence arrived in my Honda that afternoon and stayed right beside me. Besides feeling this presence, I also experienced multiple synchronistic events through friends, music and books. Someone was directing and protecting me throughout this unwanted journey!
My father was 56 years old when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, given six months to live, advised to get his affairs in order and sent to a major medical center for chemotherapy to try and slow the aggressively growing, malignant cells. I witnessed my dad’s humor, fear, and genuine self as he fought for his life. On the cancer floor, I found something real and meaningful.
When he couldn’t sleep at night because of pain, he wrote letters to his family and friends, recounting their friendship. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he stated dryly. He wanted us to know what we meant to him and thanked us. My own letter ended, “with only the love a father can give.”
When my father’s oncologist told him the chemo wasn’t working, he sent us home with Hospice and with the dismal prediction that my dad had two weeks to live. We went home to Charlotte and cocooned and shared stories. Our two-week promise, however, ended up being only two days. As my father increased his morphine boluses, we noticed he slept more and longer.
In Spiritual Care of Dying and Bereaved People, Penelope Wilcock says, “When the people who we are with approach death, there is a sense of awe, the solemnity of a great moment approaching — a sacred moment.”
The hot, sunny, July afternoon when he died peacefully at home was just that. My father was wearing his pajamas and lying on a bed we moved into his favorite room, the den. He had relaxed there and watched the Boston Celtics play and Jack Nicklaus win golf tournaments. He was in a familiar place with a bay window where he could watch birds splashing in their baths. He was surrounded by his family and even had his cat, Mr. K, curled up on his bed. “I just don’t want to lose my dignity,” he had told us and we remembered.
So when the Hospice nurse told us that my father was actively dying, we stayed close to him, telling him we loved him as he slipped away. As he came in and out of consciousness, he began intentional and guttural breaths, and then opened his eyes and lucidly turned towards my mother and whispered, “I love you.” He died at 5:00pm, on a Thursday, which was appropriate for my businessman father.
After his death, I walked around in an exhausted and disorganized fog. My life felt surreal. What am I supposed to do now? I asked myself often. Daily, I reminded myself that indeed my father was dead and it was not a dream. At stoplights, I had strong urges to roll down my window and yell at the person next to me, “Don’t you realize the world’s changed-my father died!”
Slowly, I began to reorganize my life and discern who I was and who I wanted to become. I had this new sense of a mysterious and wonderful God of grace and an enlarged and changing identity. I was also raw and malleable so perhaps I could really hear more clearly God speaking and nudging me.
Death was real and deep and important and I was okay being around it. I began to develop a coherent narrative that made meaning of what had happened and what I would do with it in the world. Like God’s transformation of death into life, defeat into triumph, and hope out of despair, through illness, death, and grief, I discovered my life’s work and purpose of companioning others thru the dark.
Heidi Gessner 2011