In our hospital system, chaplains attend to every death.
We are the ones who complete the form that designates the funeral home, signed by the next of kin, witnessed by us. We make sure that our coworkers have connected with the organ donor network, have considered whether to connect with the coroner. We talk with mom to confirm whether the infant who has died will have genetic studies, whether the mom of just under twenty-weeks will choose a funeral home or have the remains buried with our lab’s oversight. We arrive, sometimes, before the person’s breathing support is removed, or just as family is arriving after having heard the news. We’re alongside for the first death this RN has witnessed.
I think a lot about what to say and do in the minutes and hours after death.
I was talking to a man. His wife had died unexpectedly and suddenly. I had met him when he thought the surgery had worked. I had held him up when the doctor said the CPR was being stopped. I had taken him to a quiet room, had sat with him when the surgeon came to explain, had been with him when the family went into the room after everything had been cleaned up. Eventually, I walked out of the building with the family.
At one point he turned to me and said, “You are getting me prepared for what I’ll be going through later, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Go ahead.”
I’ve talked with the brother, or the wife, or the daughter. I’ve heard a little of the story of this life and this death, a little of the nature of the relationship. I’ve heard their voice, they’ve heard mine.
I’m preparing to leave the room and allow them to finish their farewell. I look at them, I let them know I’m going. And sometimes I say this: “Here’s a pack of grief materials. When you get home, you can throw this against the wall. Remember which wall you throw it against.”
If I’ve listened well enough, they chuckle, or they nod. They say, “I’ll probably just toss it on the table, but I understand.”
And I slip out.
We’ve worked to be helpful with that packet.
We created a green sheet that answers questions about choosing a funeral home and confirming that choice with us. It has simple steps. It has a phone number for us and a website for funeral home searching.
I wrote a book that goes into the packet. It has short chapters with simple things I say. And it has a journal space with some simple prompts.
We think about the family situation and include support for kids, for siblings, for others.
I have a checklist, and some of the rest of us do, too.
For the worst possible times in people’s lives, we are doing what we know how to do to be the best possible help.
What I don’t know, of course, is whether people actually find what we do helpful. They say so, sometimes. And sometimes we get notes.
But I want to know what people actually find helpful.
So I started this project, to find out.
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