Yesterday, I was trying to remember what event brought me to palliative care. I can identify so many moments when death and dying have saturated my life. Over nearly 40 years of working in health care, I have always chosen employment in setting of huge, often life-and-death intensity—abortion clinic, home birth, prison, HIV clinic, Emergency Department, hospice, palliative care.
Along the years, I’ve also amassed somber personal losses: my father died when I was 23 without reconciliation between us; I lost custody of my son to his father; in the 90s a close friend died of breast cancer, my best friend died of AIDS, and my friend and colleague Bayard Britton was murdered by antiabortion terrorist Paul Hill. Loving music and literature, I had a youthful obsession with the loss of so many talented musicians and writers to drugs and suicide. Now I am the elder generation in my family, and death is no stranger. Instead of ignoring death, I became fascinated with it.
But the actual moment I was searching for was this: I went on a silent retreat in the winter of 2004 with a group I was meeting with at the time. In the sweet silence, I felt a calling to become a chaplain. At the time, I had no idea where this came from; I certainly had never had the thought prior to that moment. It was simply what it was—a calling.
I acted on it by enrolling in a Masters program in holistic spirituality at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic college in Philadelphia, where I studied for two years. I enriched this learning by attending a program in Jewish spiritual direction. Shortly after starting that program, I decided to take a job as a hospice nurse, and then continued over the next 6 years to work in hospice and palliative care. I tried to complete my studies, but work got in the way. I also was accepted to a program in clinical pastoral education at the hospital in Pennsylvania where I was working in 2007; again the job got in the way—my boss would not approve the time for me to take part in that program.
Still my greatest support during my years in this field has always been the chaplains. If we don’t understand death as a spiritual event, then we don’t understand death at all. Now that my time is not filled with the medical aspects of death and dying, I can almost hear that still small voice calling me again. Who knows what will happen next? I can only say that remembering how I ended up in this field has brought me a slice of peace.