LifePath Hospice chaplain Guy Glass sat at the home of an American Indian holding his hand and listening to the wind for more than an hour.
The client said he wanted to sit and listen to God, and that in his faith God speaks in the wind.
"Some people would say I accommodated my faith to him," Glass explained. "But I think, at that moment, we met at a spiritual place deeper than my Christianity or his Native American religion. I'll never forget that visit because 95 percent of it was silent, but we both heard enough that it encouraged us."
The story is just one of the chapters from Glass' work as he tries to help people deal with the greatest challenge they will ever face — how to "die well." Over lunch at Sonny's in Sun City Center, I spoke with Glass about the journeys he has taken with hospice patients.
Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: The song says God is an awesome God, but that may be difficult for people to embrace when they're suffering and dying.
GUY: Yes, especially when you're dealing with somebody who is 48 and their life's ambition was to beat cancer until their youngest daughter graduated from high school and they die when she's a sophomore. I let them vent, I let them say what they want to say because I think God is a big boy and he can handle our doubt as well as our belief. I think most of the time when somebody says, "Why is God doing this to me?" I mini-
mize their personhood if I give them an answer. That's a rhetorical question.
What happened to the 48-year-old woman?
She wound up dying a death of significance and meaning, speaking blessings over her daughter. She actually went through a dark night before her faith became stronger. At the end, she was my hero. She came to believe what she believed at such a deep level that it sustained her through the process of dying.
Is that what you mean when you talk about "dying well?"
It's really an oxymoron, but if we can help people deal with those issues of gratitude, those issues of forgiveness and reconciliation, those issues of appreciation and love, that allows the person to face the unknown without a whole bunch of complications.
Tell me about your religious background.
I grew up as a Pentecostal. I spent 25 years pastoring churches and, somewhere along the way, my pilgrimage took me into the evangelical Presbyterian church. So, my background is Christian, but when it comes to my ministry at hospice, my goal is to meet someone where they are.
Would it be fair to say your job is more about empathy than theology?
Theology always informs what I do, but I'm blessed in the sense that my theology simply offers great value in simply being with a person. I don't have to have all the answers. If I'm holding a person's hand or if I'm making eye contact with them and I see peace going into their life, that's value.
Do you also counsel other hospice workers?
Of course, patients and families always come first but we also realize that we can have staff and personnel dealing with their own issues or an overwhelming week of loss. We get close to the patients and if you lose three patients in a week that you've been walking with for three or four months, that can be difficult. I'll sit or have coffee and talk and we'll process where they are in their spiritual journey.
What about you? What happens when it gets tough for you?
I know I'm not God, so it's not an unusual thing for me to need support. Right now, LifePath is offering a program called Clinical Pastoral Education. It's one of the training programs that we offer to our chaplains who are trying to develop not only better competencies in the field but also a better and more healthier approach to how we deal with our own spiritual lives. I have a support group I meet with and as I'm learning, I'm also revealing my heart and learning ways to continue to fill myself up when I've given out.
It sounds like you don't do your job by being stoic.
I don't cross inappropriate boundaries and do things I shouldn't do, but it won't work if I'm keeping a distance and I won't share my heart with someone. We get up very close to their pain and share their pain. We lament over their pain. We cry over their pain, but at the same point and time that's what brings the healing and the strength.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Glass said many of his clients want to resolve family disputes before passing, and some hold on until they receive or dispense forgiveness. Both the number of hospice patients requesting chaplains and the number of people choosing the vocation has risen significantly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. He says he walked away from being a pastor at a large church so he could spend more time with his family and "to show love and compassion and to show care to what Jesus would call the least of these."
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or (813) 226-3406.