Yesterday, in my work as a hospice chaplain, I received a call that Franny* was quickly declining. Our staff were concerned she would die alone, and her family lives hours away, so I hopped in the car and drove to go be with her. I walked into Franny’s room, sat down, and just began to speak softly to her, as is my custom. Then, I paused, looked in her direction, and noticed she may have already passed away. Just then, a caregiver named Kimberly walked in, and I told her the patient may already be gone. The caregiver said, “Oh, I always pray for my patients, and I just hate it when they die alone.” So, while another employee came to check her pulse, I said to Kimberly, “Would you like to pray with me? We can be the witnesses of her crossing over since her family can’t be here.”
My dearest chaplain mentor and friend, Tom, is a former Catholic priest, and he gave me a beautiful prayer that I use regularly in situations like these. It is called a Prayer of Commendation for the Dying, and it can be prayed by non-priestly types like me. I pulled out my ragged copy of the prayer, touched the patient’s leg, and began to pray. “…we commend you, our dear sister, Franny, to our Creator. May the One who formed you from the dust of the earth come to escort you home.”
As we finished, the other employee said, “She has a faint pulse.” Kimberly and I looked at each other quizzically. Moments later, the second reading of her pulse informed us she was, indeed, gone. Franny had died.
I called Franny’s daughter, and she wept as I told her Franny did not die alone. I let her know Kimberly and I prayed, and moments later, she passed. We had witnessed a great crossing over. It was a powerful moment. Standing in the place of family, witnessing the passing, sharing the story.
This experience makes me think about the role of the progressive Christian at this particular juncture in our nation’s history. Our Black and Indigenous siblings are dying and crying out for a witness. From the bloody streets, I can almost hear them calling out, “Please see me! Please speak for me. Be my family when no one else is there for me.”
These are not the only voices I hear in my soul. I hear my transgender sisters calling from the grave, asking me to witness their dying. Asking me to see the violence caused by the fear that their genetalia and gender identities spark in the souls of mostly White men. A fear so great that the strong, trans, female voice must be squelched. And yes, they are mostly women of color.
I hear many other voices calling to me to see them from the other side. I hear our Native siblings crying out for water and adequate healthcare. I hear non-binary folks get harrassed and harmed. Sometimes it gets noisy. But I take my job seriously, and I stand. I witness one death at a time. And I pray.
Franny serves as a powerful symbol of what not dying alone means. It speaks to “our place in the family of things”, as poet Mary Oliver calls it. Each human being has a place in our family of things, and our job is to witness it. Please join me. I invite you to walk, to see, to pray. To witness.
*I have changed the names and some of the circumstances around this story to protect the confidentiality of the people therein.
Being the witness to the crossing over of a life is a powerful thing. I was the only person in the room the morning my brother crossed from this life to the next the quiet June morning. It was peaceful as he was ready to leave his body that was ravaged with the pain of ALS. I had to place a powerful magnet on his pacemaker to keep it from attempting to keep him alive. I sat with him for several minutes before I woke the rest of the house so that he could have just a few minutes of peace. Having been present at both another’s birth and death they are miracles in a different way.