November, darkness falls earlier as the evenings get shorter, trees become naked as they continue to shed and let go of their beautiful, rustic colour leaves. Nature constantly reminds us of letting go, dying and death. The month of November, we traditionally remember our dead. There is a sense of eeriness this year because of the restrictions imposed on us, as we try to manage living with the unseen, deadly virus, Covid 19. It feels relentless and perhaps daily we die a little, as we keep our distance, wear masks, and are cautious in how we relate with each other.
As a Healthcare Chaplain, like all staff in the hospital, I wear a mask as I meet with patients and staff and the few family members who arrange with the Hospital, to be with their family member at the end of life. I’ve learned in a different way the wisdom of, “eyes are the windows to the soul”. I see fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, anger, confusion, loneliness, relief, acceptance, humour,… in patients’ eyes and hear it when they talk. I endeavour to respond with my eyes, presence, compassion, gentleness, kindness and when appropriate with prayer and blessing.
I recently met Michael, an elderly man who lived with dementia for a number of years and now he was semi-conscious, as he like the leaves was letting go of this life. He received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. I met his daughter Sheila at his bedside during her designated time to be allowed into the hospital. Her mother briefly visited Michael a few days before, to say good bye to her husband of over 50 years. Before I left the room, I said to Michael, will we say the Hail Mary together? I was not sure he would respond but to our surprise he nodded and I started the Hail Mary, slowly; “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed… Michael began to mouth the prayer with us, …and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, Michael bows his head at “Jesus”, Holy Mary, …pray for us…now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Michael once more bows his head and prays with us Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in thee. Sheila has tears quietly running down her face and I know in the silence of this sacred moment this is indeed a graced and blessed moment, filled with love and gratitude. Michael died peacefully the next day.
There was consolation in the simplicity of saying a Hail Mary, her father participating and Sheila being present. The atmosphere in the hospital room was transformed and there was fulfilment of the line of the Psalm, “The Lord is close to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34: 18)
It may not always feel like God is close to the broken hearted in a hospital setting when for example, a family’s equilibrium is rocked to its core by the diagnosis of an aggressive cancer, in a young mother or father, or there is a sudden devastating road traffic accident, a stroke, a still birth, … it is then that the words from the Constitutions of my way of life encourages me, “Understand what Jesus has done… Know how to be present. Know how to care, to share others’ joys and pains and to touch their wounds with a tender hand, at times to be silent, helpless.” (MMM Constitutions 5.5)
The leaves fall, the winds howl, frost cements the ground and we are reminded of our dead, maybe we even have thoughts of our own mortality in these very uncertain times. We grieve for; people we loved, the letting go of plans, for family members who could not travel for funerals and we resonate with the bareness of nature and yet our resurrection hope is to;
“Remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the Spring, becomes a rose”
The Rose, Amanda McBroom
Sister Dervilla O’Donnell, MMM
Healthcare Chaplain, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda