The Long Good-bye: A Chaplain’s Reflection


“Time does not obey our commands. You cannot make it holy just because it is disappearing.”
Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Good-Bye

It’s an occupational hazard, I guess. I’m attuned to it. I see the process of letting go of life, when the diagnosis given so gently weeks or months ago becomes too final, too real. I willingly will join my patients and their families as they take the next steps. It is part of what chaplains do.

I find this hard. Really hard. Perhaps you think that’s odd, given my profession. No, humorously, saying “good-bye” in any form does not come easily to me. My husband and kids will tell you — I get teary just leaving the girls at college. Or summer camp. I was one of those mommies who was weepy at the Kindergarten bus stop. And that new Carter’s commercial? I tell ya, it made the TV go fuzzy the first time I saw it.

However, part of being a pastor and a chaplain is facing the harder parts of life and reflecting on how they affect me. Not for purposes of being maudlin, but to be better able to separate my struggles and life experiences from those who are in my care.

In light of this, I added Meghan O’Rourke’s book The Long Good-Bye to my Kindle queue on the recommendation of… another chaplain. 😉 The book is a memoir about Ms. O’Rourke’s response through the diagnosis, treatment, and death of her mother, and then her own journey through her grief. I’m reading it and processing this story very slowly… because it isn’t exactly a “beach read.”

Reading, thinking, reflecting, writing, responding… these are part of every ministry skill set. They have helped me grow into a better human being. And hopefully, a better chaplain. Or so I’d like to think.

Most of the time, the events I witness as a spiritual companion are not the avoidable experiences of life. Birth, death, illness… we all get to go through them. (I have not yet met someone who hasn’t had one miserable illness in their lifespan. But correct me if I’m wrong on that.) The patients I meet, the families I talk to — each have their own story and their own reaction to the challenges that they are facing. I never know when I introduce myself as “the chaplain” whether I’ll be welcomed or dis-invited from visiting.

I show up anyway.

I show up because I know that sometimes there are ways that I can support a family which have more to do with living than dying. REALLY living. Squeezing an extra dose of love and caring into the precious minutes of an ICU. Inviting story-telling. Encouraging laughter. And always witnessing to the fact that the person they are all worried about is important and precious… and that as a staff, we will do all we can to honor that.

One night, I sat with a patient who was, as is sometimes said, “actively dying.” She told me stories about her husband, her children’s accomplishments, and laughed at her mothering mistakes. The time the baby found her lipstick and “colored” his arms, legs, the couch, the dog, the front door… and how she never did tell her mama why she bought slipcovers for her brand new couch. The birthday that she tried to make lemon meringue pie but made it with salt instead of sugar. Or the Sunday morning she went up to the front of the church to read Scripture and had a “train” of toilet paper stuck to her shoe. We laughed until tears came.

“Oh my,” I said, wiping my eyes, “that’s rich.”

She beamed at me. “Why yes, I AM rich, that’s a fact!” And we started laughing again.

Her daughter walked in, surprised to see someone sitting and laughing with her mother. And she smiled at this stranger. I introduced myself and my role. She immediately stopped smiling and put on a somber face. “Well, Reverend… You’ll want to pray for her, now, I think.”

I turned to the patient, who all but rolled her eyes at her daughter. “Well, ma’am? Shall we pray?”

“Oh honey,” she said with a smile, “I don’t think we are done laughing yet!” And so she told more stories, welcoming her daughter into this circle of smiles and laughter. And yes, tears.

We did pray, eventually. And when it was time for me to go see my next patient, she reached for her daughter’s hand. “I’m going to enjoy a few more minutes with my girl here, before time disappears.”

I nodded. O’Rourke’s words about time “disappearing” came back to me. “It’s a gift,” I said. “One worth spending together.”

As I stepped out of her room, her nurse looked up with a quizzical look. “What was all that laughing about?”

I grinned. “She was telling stories on herself.”

She smiled. “Did she tell you the one about her son and the lipstick?” We both chuckled.

I glanced back into the room, seeing mother and daughter talking quietly and smiling. I looked away, quickly, feeling the tears coming. “It’s hard to say good-bye to this life,” I said. “It’s just hard. Or maybe… it’s not life that we are saying good-bye to, really. It’s the long good-byes to the people and things we love.”

Perhaps that’s why I don’t like good-byes. There’s just too much in this life to love… and I am so grateful.

Thanks be to God.


  1. Thank you much for sharing this. Even at middle age, time seems so fleeting. i hope I have someone as thoughtful as you are when it comes time (hopefully in the way distance) to say good-bye.


    • One of my comments frequently to friends is “cherish the now” — which I think you do. And may be both have companions at the journey’s end that bring us back to a sense of God’s care and peace.


  2. I just happen to be searching the web for scriptures relating to assurance of God’s faithfulness and I have come upon this blog about the Long Goodbye. I lost my husband a year & a half ago and unfortunately we were not able to share any laughter as he was incapacitated for many,many years. The pain is still very great.


    • Bonnie…
      I’m so sorry to read of your journey. How very difficult. Your good-bye was heart-wrenching to read about… let alone experience. I pray for glimmers of memories that make you smile or give you a moment’s peace.

      Prayers for God’s faithfulness to shine through to you in new ways.


  3. What a lovely post. Someday (waaayyy down the road.. 😉 ) I want to be her. Maybe I should start filing stories away to tell. With my kid, it was margarine… 😉

    But, honest? I hate good byes, too…


    • Grins… I had one child who finger-painted a stinky mess… and one who played with kitchen knives. I count myself fortunate because I had a friend whose daughter put Nair on her head!

      Life is never dull.


  4. Oh, what a great post. I work in health care, and yes, I have those days when I get in my car and cry all the way home. But my job is generally for those getting better. When they don’t it often takes me by surprise.
    I admire what you do, am so grateful for the chaplains.Oftentimes, I fall into that trap of thinking of the chaplains as these saintly beings, floating on a cloud of altruism, not quite human.
    Thank you for reminding me that you are human, just like me. Maybe I need to reach out more.


    • Thanks, Hebba!
      Oh trust me, chaplains are frequently tired, often crabby/whiny/frustrated… But like the nurses, doctors, social workers, etc etc are called to what we do.
      Chaplains are there for staff, too. Come find us. 🙂


  5. Hi Deb, my Mom passed away Oct. 6, 2011. My daughter and I were her primary caregivers for many years. Long story…but her last few months were spent in assisted living/nursing home. I was there as often as I could be as was my daughter. I was ever so grateful for any one who chatted with her and made her laugh. This post just touched a spot in me I hadn’t touched in a while… The grief process is a journey. I am so glad to follow you here and am grateful how you are allowing God to use you. Hugs…big ones… 🙂


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