I spent time as a hospital chaplain-in-training while in seminary, and I was blessed with this incredibly thoughtful supervisor named Eileen. She served as a chaplain for decades, and had an unsettling amount of wisdom, strength, and gravitas for someone who wore flared skirts and flowered cardigans.
During our weekly supervisory meetings I would inevitably start crying at some point due to the grief and stress of interning in the hospital’s ICU and regularly witnessing absolutely insane amounts of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.
During one of our meetings she asked me how it made me feel that one of the patients I’d been meeting with for weeks had been given a bleak prognosis and would likely die in the next day or two.
“It makes me feel sad,” I said, dashing away more tears with the back of my hand. I didn’t say, “Duh,” though I kind of wanted to because, hello, tears.
“Are you sure?” Eileen asked gently.
“Um, yes?” I responded.
“I think you may have another feeling in there that you need to pay attention to in order to find God in the midst of this.” She paused and folded her hands in her lap, waiting for me to invite her to continue. I sniffled, wiped the mascara from under my eyes, and nodded. “Are you perhaps feeling angry?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “No,” I said. “I’m not. People are dying and it is sad.”
“Oh,” she said. “I see.”
It took me another month before I was willing to acknowledge that yes, I was angry. That death and suffering was rotten and horrible and unjust and totally freaking NOT OKAY. In those four weeks I watched a 20-year old die from a brain tumor. I witnessed a beloved family patriarch expire suddenly. I stood by, spellbound, as a man’s girlfriend refused to go into the ICU to comfort him in his last moments, but happily followed a social worker, a copy of the man’s will and life insurance policy clutched in her hand. I visited an dementia patient so ravaged by the disease that she lived in terror of her doctor, who she believed snuck into her room nightly to bite her on the arm. I gathered to pray with a family that, through tears, proclaimed that their loved one with terminal cancer was “getting better,” though when the patient’s eyes met mine he silently acknowledged that it just wasn’t true.
So one day I just lost it. I was supposed to be the ICU’s chaplain, bringing the presence and love of God into these impossible situations. And I just couldn’t do it anymore. God wasn’t there, or if he was, he was hiding so well I certainly couldn’t find him. It all seemed so futile. So hubristic. So stupid.
I stormed into Eileen’s office. It wasn’t time for my weekly supervision, but I was way past caring about decorum and all the anger I’d stuffed down during my chaplaincy training, during the long weeks walking the ICU halls, during each Code Blue page to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night came pouring out.
“Yeah, okay,” I said, flinging the office door open and catching Eileen with a forkful of lunch halfway to her mouth. “So it turns out that I am angry. Because death is awful and people are awful and God is nowhere to be found. And life is awful and pointless and meaningless and I’m just done with this. All of it.”
She listened, silently, her fork resting back on her plate of pasta.
“So now what?” I demanded. “You were right. So now what?”
“Now we can start making some progress,” she said, simply, and sent me up to the seventh floor to look at the fat, healthy babies in the maternity ward for an hour while I decompressed. All those beautiful pink and brown and tan babies, drunk on milk and mommy and bright lights didn’t solve my existential crisis. But it’s practically impossible to stay focused on death and despair in the presence of new life. And it’s also practically impossible to be truly, deeply irate with someone who has waited patiently for you to lower your shields and open your heart and admit what you are really feeling.
Death is sad. Of course it’s sad. But isn’t it okay to be angry about it, too?
It’s Good Friday. The day we remember Jesus’ death. The day we put ourselves at the foot of his cross watching his life drain away for us. On our behalf.
It’s a day when we’re invited to face the deaths–big and small–we’ve experienced. The death of a loved one. The death of a dream. The death of a job, a pregnancy, a marriage, a home, a place, a hope. These deaths bring finality, anguish, grief, and even anger.
We might find ourselves in Jesus’ cry on the cross, yelling to the heavens the Psalmist’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s not reading between the lines to hear anger there.
On Good Friday, we’re invited to go down to the depths with the one who went there first. With the one who hates the pain, the separation, the finality, the robbery of death so much that he died for us willingly, so that death itself would die.
We need not fear our anger. We can set it or fling it or hurl it at the foot of the cross, where Jesus will bear them again on our behalf.
I was surprised, back in chaplaincy training, to find God even in my anger. To find that he, too, was angry at the state of the world, at the suffering of people, at death that came too soon. In fact, he was so angry at sin and death that he took it into himself, going down to the depths for me–for us–and conquering it forever.
So tonight, this Good Friday, we can weep and wail and watch with Christ. We can mourn for him, for us, for one another, for the world. We can be angry at all that is not how it should be and for all that’s lost.
We can cry out in our anger to the one who hears and knows and loves.
Come, Lord Jesus.
For one more reflection on Good Friday, check out Sitting in the Sad.
[This post originally published 3/25/16.]
2 thoughts on “Death, Good Friday, and All the Feels”
I’m floored and in tears by the beauty and truth of this. ❤️❤️❤️ Keep writing, sister!
The transparency and honesty as you related your fears, anger, and thoughts about your experiences in the hospital chaplaincy training is so refreshing. Each of us have similar thoughts – thank you for an excellent blog – the contrast between visiting the nursery and being with those who are dying is especially apropos.