Leaning In

By Kristin Dow, M. Div., KCH Chaplain
Published:  August 9, 2022

I still recall the first lesson I learned in my years training to be a healthcare Chaplain. It came from a quote by Anton Boison, who is widely considered the founder of the profession of modern health care ministry.  Riffing on an old adage, Boison is quoted as saying, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” The idea, of course, is that while others in health care often engage in rapid and purposeful movement to help someone, the best help a chaplain can provide comes from our stillness and ability to just be with someone in their crisis.  

This quiet and intentional presence with someone who is hurting or afraid is perhaps never more poignant than in hospice chaplaincy. We live in a culture that leans away from death and the dying. But the hospice chaplain’s role is to lean in—lean in to listen, lean in to comfort, lean in to guide, and lean in to love.  But what does this really look like? 

I had spent countless hours with “Laura” (name changed for privacy) before that day. She was lonely a lot of the time and we formed a bond. We liked to talk about movies and books. In time, I earned her trust and she opened up to me about her family history. 

Although Laura had many of the features of a successful life—a long marriage, two healthy children, a home she loved—when the worst happened with her health, the façade fell quickly. Laura revealed to me that she had never really valued herself because her parents withheld love from her. That made it really hard for her to love her own family the way she wanted to. And most of all, Laura could not feel God’s love for her. Although I reassured her many times, it always seemed just beyond her grasp. 

But the day Laura left her earthly body behind was different. In the quiet of her room, I held her hands in mine. I leaned in close so I was sure she could hear me. I whispered to her again the words I had said so many times, “You, daughter of God, are beloved. You are not alone. I am here. And God is holding you. All is well. Be at peace.” As my words closed her eyes fluttered briefly open. She looked at me and truly smiled. It was a smile of acceptance like I had never seen on her face. A few hours later, Laura died peacefully. 

Chaplain Kristin Dow visiting Sedona, AZ

It is good that our nurses and physicians bring knowledge, skill, and medication to address someone’s physical pain. But it is also good that our hospice chaplains bring our unique skills to address someone’s existential pain. Laura’s feelings about herself were never going to show up on a list of her diagnoses. Nevertheless, it was a real and acute pain for her. And I feel so fortunate that my calling is to lean in with comfort and guidance when someone needs it. Each of our hospice chaplains do this every day for those we serve. We lean in and we love.  

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