What a Dying Man Who Didn’t Say a Word Taught Me

As a part of our priestly formation at Catholic University, each student is required to take what is called “Basic Supervised Ministry,” an intense, year-long course combining ministry experience and academic reflection. For most of us, that means taking a shift each week at a local hospital visiting patients and serving as a chaplaincy intern. The experience is often well out of one’s comfort zone, and can be a time of both revelation and stress.

I apparently wasted no time with both.

On my first day, I visited a patient that was very near to death. When I came to his room, he was unconscious, and his wife indicated that it would not be long before he was gone. It was obvious. In the bed before me was someone sick and weak, entirely dependent on the outside world to survive. There was very little to see in that bed.

And yet, there was something profound about the experience. In just the few seconds I spent in his room, I felt something come over me. I couldn’t say exactly what I was feeling at the time, but when I looked at this tired old man, beyond the years of being respected and “useful,” I thought about how he must have been at one point. Sure, he was a withered old man now, but wasn’t he a child at one time, full of energy and optimism? Wasn’t he a young man at one time, in love and eager to take on the world; mustn’t there been a time in his life when he was so very sure of himself, capable and able to take on the day? There had to be more than this shell of a man I saw.

As it was a busy day of orientation, I didn’t think much more of him until later that evening when another friar and I watched the movie Wit. A homework assignment for our ministry class, Wit is a movie about a renowned and confident professor who develops and eventually dies of cancer. Through the process of following this woman’s struggle with aggressive, experimental treatment methods, the viewer comes to understand know the great physical pain and emotional trauma one goes through in such a situation. Emma Thompson’s performance was so raw and so technically precise that I wanted to look away at times… but I couldn’t. Her portrayal was absolutely chilling. Award-worthy if you ask me.

But it is not her pain that made this movie so relevant to my experience earlier in the day, it was her existential crisis. Through numerous flashback scenes and monologues, the viewer is made aware from the beginning that she is no ordinary woman. Not only a professor at a distinguished university, she is a renowned research scholar with countless publications and accolades. To say that she is “brilliant” does little to appropriately distinguish her from her inferior colleagues. From her perspective (and the perspective of the viewer), her identity is defined by her long life and many accomplishments; cancer was but a footnote to how she understood herself, an afterthought on an otherwise noteworthy life.

But this is not who she is in the hospital. To the medical personnel, her primary identity is as a cancer patient. As such, she is seen and treated like all of the other patients: with concern and dignity, but as an utterly sick and weak person, entirely dependent on the outside world to survive. Having no knowledge of her life prior to treating her, they do not glory in her brilliance or fear her reputation; they simply see a bald-headed, toxic-ridden body that had little-to-no chance of survival. From their perspective, and there’s no way you could blame them for this, her identity is intrinsically linked to having cancer, and their association with her reflects this. It was as if her life began when she entered the hospital doors and her life was defined by who she was there.

On an existential level, this aspect of the movie tore me up. There she was throughout the movie, a woman filled with an entire world of unique memories, having lived through trials and fears, joys and despairs and eventually making a reputation of greatness and incredible self-worth for herself… completely unnoticed and treated like anyone else. No one, even the one who treated her nicely, saw her for who she was at her best; they saw her for who she was at her worst, a cancer patient. How painful this must have been emotionally. How lonely she must have felt. How insignificant her life seemed to become. The way she narrated and acted with those in the hospital all but cried out, “This is not who I am! Don’t you know this? I’ve lived fifty years of greatness and all you see is me at my weakest, me at the end! This is not who I am!”

Isn’t that so true? Who of us is at our strongest when we are at a hospital? Who of us is at our best when we are sick? One might say that it is exactly the opposite: to go to a hospital is to be at one’s most vulnerable, to admit sickness, brokenness, and need for healing. We are hardly who we are at our weakest state.

It was with this that my experience from earlier in the day came flooding back to me. Like the professor in Wit, I thought about how emotionally painful it must have been in his situation. I thought about how embarrassing, even, it must be to be a grown man with seventy years of accomplishments and experiences and yet have people see him for only the person he was in the moment, the weak, helpless man on his deathbed. Everyone who casually walked in and out of his room saw one man, but is that really the man he thought of himself to be? I hardly think so. How difficult it must be to be faced with such an existential crisis at such a weak time. “Doesn’t anyone know the real me?”

I can hardly fault the doctors or nurses for how he must have felt as their preoccupation is clearly on medical issues. One could even argue that they are simply not trained to deal with such issues. In fact, I’m not sure if I would want my doctor to know the deepest desires of my soul. But in that situation, I would definitely want someone to know. And so many do. In situations like these, so many people just want someone to talk to, someone to hear their story, to walk with them through their fears and pain. At their weakest point, they just want someone to affirm that they have not always been this way, that their lives and self-worth are so much more than their experience in the hospital.

As ministers, this is what we are training to do. While everyone we meet will obviously not be on their deathbed facing a dramatic existential crisis, so many will be faced with issues they’ve never had to deal with before. Insecurity. Fear. Doubt. Weakness. Boredom. Regret. Pain. Disillusionment. The list could go on. As ministers, it is our role to be with them, to hear them, and to restore hope in them.

And this is by no means easy. In fact, I imagine it will be the most difficult thing I do in my life. But I think I learned valuable lesson on my first day: the first step in helping someone restore hope is to discover and lift up who the patient knows him/herself to be at their best, not who they are at their weakest, sitting before us. If all we can see is the sickness or infirmity effecting the person, we will never be able to see the whole person before us, and thus, we will never be able to help them in the way they need. That’s quite a lesson to learn on the first day, and quite a task for the year. But if God can use an unconscious man to speak to me so well on just the first day, I know that God is capable of working through even me.

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4 Comments on “What a Dying Man Who Didn’t Say a Word Taught Me

  1. May our loving God always bless you with this beautiful insight. I will always pray that you become a truly compassionate priest when dealing with God’s people.

  2. I am a chaplain who has worked in hospice for over 10 years and I was moved by your reflection, even though I was a little uneasy about using a patient example in such a public context, even without a name or distinguishing characteristics. Presumably you had permission for this blog? In addition, I did have a few cautions. You use the expressions: “must have felt” “, how difficult it “must be.” But really, there are no “musts” about it. We can never assume we know what a person is thinking or feeling. Those are what you think you would feel in that situation. The man in the bed is a child of God no matter what he did in the past, what his power, his occupation. You are called to be with him, to honor that presence, even if you can’t do anything, or give him anything, even hope. Many blessings on your ministry.

  3. This is probably my favorite blog you have written. It really spoke to me. It was so insightful and touching. Thank you so much for sharing it!

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