Celebrations and Sufferings

In mimages-8y work as a chaplain, I find my own grief journey connects me with the grief of my patients and their families. My mother died 35 years ago when I was five years old. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, underwent aggressive treatment from chemotherapy to amputation to surgery, and she died in the hospital about 8 months after her diagnosis. My grief over the death of my mother has mostly been grief as a child who no longer had her mother. My work in palliative care in a hospital setting has helped me to consider my grief through the lens of my mother as the dying patient.

My care for one patient in particular offered me this lens. The patient was a young first-time mother who was diagnosed with terminal cancer one month after she found out she was pregnant with her daughter. I met the patient about four months after her diagnosis. She was hospitalized for symptom management as her disease progressed. In the three weeks I cared for her, the patient had emergent lung surgery followed by cesarean-section birth of her daughter. As my patient was dying, her daughter was born prematurely and was thriving in neo-natal intensive care. The patient asked me to christen her daughter in our hospital, and allowed me to journey with her through her joy and grief as she met her daughter knowing she would not be able to raise her.

I bore witness to the immense love of a mother who knew she would not live to raise her daughter, who needed to talk through that grief, and who wanted to do all she could to let her child know how much she loved her. The experience turned my attention to what my mother may have felt as she was dying and leaving behind her four children. The stories I remembered from my mother’s illness and death were mostly stories about her faith and joy in the face of her suffering. I remember my family talking about how she knew we would all be okay because she had faith that God would take care of us. Those stories brought me comfort as a child. But once I met a mother who was dying, I knew there must be more to my mother’s story.

I learned that my mother was fearful at the end of her life, and that her greatest fear was that her children wouldn’t remember her. Weeping with my family as an adult at the painful reality of my mother’s suffering was deeply healing. The whole story matters. Life brings joy and pain. We can live abundantly when we can process the whole gamut of our life’s experiences. Arthur Frank has written, “In listening for the other, we listen for ourselves.” When I bear witness to the celebrations and sufferings of others, I more deeply know myself and the wide-ranging experiences of being human.

Rev. Erin Lysse, M.Div., Chaplain
Guest Writer


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