I am back in school. After having received my Masters of Divinity several years ago, I am now completing the other half of training for my desired career path: a Masters of Social Work.
I’ve been working in the social work field for over a decade and have known that I’ve wanted to move towards more clinical therapy-type work. All along, I have imagined this would be your run-of-the-mill outpatient counseling with adults dealing with addiction, marital issues, mental health concerns, etc. I have respected those that work in inpatient settings, with kids, with the elderly, and such–but I have not imagined that would be my route. And I still don’t.
However, here in my second semester, just as the Christian Church is in the season of Lent, I am taking a course on End-of-Life Care, and it’s shaping up to be one of those courses that will profoundly affect me in the long run.
I’m taking the class not only because my desire in clinical work is to try and bring some greater sense of wholeness, health, and dignity to the hardest parts of human existence, but because death is an aspect of human life I’ve not had a lot of experience with. I’ve had some family members, a few acquaintances, and plenty of clients die over the years; and I’ve walked with others in their grief over the loss of others. But still, I’ve had relatively little training and direct experience with it.
Also, while religious faith can provide a structure and a sense of resilience, coping, and meaning in the face of death–that’s certainly been true for me–it can also sometimes serve as a distraction from our mortality. It can be used to minimize death, prevent us from taking it seriously, or keep us from really grappling, internalizing, or accepting it.
I never wrote about it here on the blog (I don’t think), but a couple of years ago this all hit me and I had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I’ve ever had. It was the first time that I really felt a sense of my own mortality and the unknown and hiddenness of what comes on the other side of death. I felt the really deep fears and doubts about what might there be (or not) and what that means for me and others.
Through counseling, spiritual direction, and the passing of time, I’ve come to a greater sense of acceptance and peace with it since then, but these anxieties around death are still the background noise of my soul which come up whenever I actually quiet and center myself to any real degree. The fear and unknown around death can still be paralyzing at times.
So I’m taking this class. Not only to be better equipped to walk with others in their own end-of-life scenarios, or the grief of another’s passing, but to actually stare in the face this thing that’s been haunting me these past couple of years. Because, after all, how good of a counselor could I be for others in the “easier” difficulties of life if haven’t walked through the hardest and most profound of human dilemmas?
As you can imagine, a course like this brings up a lot of feelings, thoughts, and implications. It’s made me want to do some of my field work in hospice or palliative care, and a renewed desire to pursue some hospital chaplaincy training later. It’s made me reflect on how I process such events in my life and the lives of others. It’s brought more awareness over how I distract and ignore mortality, and the deep structural ways our society (and churches) perpetuate this.
So in the weeks to come, I’ll be posting reflections about this course and excerpts from assignments. I invite you to walk with me in this journey, as the Lenten Church season is exactly an appropriate time to do so, for it in this season we remember and reflect on the reality that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
Your turn. What has been your experience with death and mortality? How much have you been directly acquainted with it in your life, and how have you processed your own mortality (or not)?