When someone once asked my CPE Supervisor, “So, what is it that chaplains do?” she responded by saying, “We make people cry.”
And it’s true. I often joke with Sarah when I’m telling her about my day when I say, “Well, it was a pretty good day today. I was able to make 3 people cry.” I suppose it can sound a little sick and demented – chaplains going into patients’ rooms and trying to make people cry. I guess it does sound a little wrong. But I think it’s a very good thing. I often find myself enjoying the visits where patients cry the most – for me it normally is a clue to let me know that there is something going on with the patient – some opportunity that the patient has to connect with himself or herself. Does that mean every visit should include crying? Not necessarily. Many of the ones I’d say were “successful” have been times with patients have cried, but not necessarily.
The past few weeks though, I have had some very intense visits where patients have cried. I met with an 86-yr old Jewish man – he and I have had some very fun conversations in the past, but he’s always just joked around with me. This past week, after a few minutes of small talk, he started sharing his doubts about a God he’s always believed in, and shared with me about his wife’s Alzheimers and losing his son to lung cancer. I felt honored to have been with him in that time. Another visit was with a man who was basically going home to die – the doctors, nurses and the patient knew that was reality. Meanwhile, his family all hoped for his recovery. He knew that was not going to happen, and he was struggling with end of life issues. He began to sob as he shared these issues with me and I realized that through this conversation and through the tears, I was being allowed to enter into a holy, sacred space with this man.
Today marks the first day of the last two weeks of CPE. Have I enjoyed the experience? Yes, in many ways I have. Has it been all-consuming and sucked too much of my energy? It certainly has. Can I see myself doing this kind of work in the future? Perhaps. I think it is a very unique ministry, and would certainly fulfill my desire to be involved in some type of interfaith work. As I write up my evaluation of the CPE program for the hospital and for Princeton, I’m sure I’ll have some more reflections on the work of chaplains and my own experience being one this summer. But for now, I’m content to think of chaplains as those persons who “make people cry.”