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Welcome to Holy Week. For Christians, it’s an emotional roller coaster like no other — beginning today, Palm Sunday, with the climbing excitement over Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, before plummeting into the suffering and death on Good Friday.Then, after the week ends in Saturday’s darkness, comes the sunrise high of Easter Sunday and the miracle of resurrection.Chaplain Courtney Mys lives Holy Week nearly every day. “Sometimes, five to seven times a day,” she says.For more than two decades, she’s ministered to the living and the dying in hospitals, listening to families share the life stories of their loved ones and helping those loved ones navigate their end-of-life journey.
“I get through it,” Mys says, “because I see the Easters of dying people. The dying show me.”Because of them, she no longer merely believes in an afterlife. She is absolutely convinced of it.“I know with every atom within me, because hundreds and hundreds of people can’t make it up,” she says.This from a geology student who once thought, “science is everything.” But that was a lifetime ago. Mys is 51 now, and a chaplain at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. She’s also the minister of visitation at Mission Hills United Church of Christ.
She smiles and shrugs as she recounts her own spiritual journey. “I didn’t want to be a chaplain,” she confesses. “I didn’t want to be a pastor. That’s the nerdiest thing ever.”So what happened? “I only went into it — and stayed — because I had my own Easter.”Telling her story
Mys grew up in a suburb outside Grand Rapids, Mich., and was studying to be a geologist at Hope College, a small Christian liberal arts school near the shores of Lake Michigan, when she came down with mononucleosis. It was followed by a cascade of so many other health problems that she had to take a semester off.When she returned, she added a second major — religion. “I was so mad,” she explains. “I was furious that science was doing nothing for me. I needed answers.”
In her junior year, she and other students had gathered at the home of a religion professor to celebrate the end of the semester. Mys stayed afterward to discuss an extension for a paper. When the woman heard of her health problems, she asked if she could pray for her. “I did it because she was my professor,” Mys says. “Not that I expected anything.”Then the professor anointed her with oil. “I was instantly, suddenly, filled with light and love and electricity that flowed through my body. And I was instantly healed.”She made another decision: She had to go to seminary “to figure out who this God was.” Mys found herself drawn to ministry in a healthcare setting. After doing residencies at UCLA and the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s, she became a board-certified chaplain. She also became an ordained clergywoman in the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination.What’s it like being a hospital chaplain? She answers by telling another story, this one about a woman who brought her husband to the emergency room and less than 24 hours later, he was in the process of dying. Sitting with them, Mys asked the woman about her husband’s life. After a couple of hours, the woman paused.
“She said, ‘I wish I never would have met you.’ And then she paused again before saying, ‘But I’m so glad I did.’ ’’Mys believes she has the best job in the hospital. “I get to hear all the stories of what people see and experience in their transition. I call it my spiritual end-of-life education. It’s making spiritual sense out of the physical indicators that we see from the people dying.”And the dying, it turns out, have taught her much.Signs and wonders
When she was young, Mys used to envision that after you died, a kind of Star Trek laser beam sucked you up into heaven
But that image has dramatically changed.“What people report is that the closer their transition gets, the closer and closer the divine welcoming party gets,” she says. “Weeks, days, hours before the body shuts down fully, people report seeing angels, guides, family members, friends, dogs and cats (who have gone on before them).”They may reach out their arms, as if to hug someone, or start talking in the direction of unseen entities. “Many times I cannot sit in a chair, being told there is someone already there, but I am alone in the room.”She is unflinchingly adamant. “The thousands of people I have been honored to know in the North, South, East and West cannot make the same things up.”
Mys also has come to embrace the accounts of the dearly departed sending signs of reassurance back to their loved ones.“Sometimes people report seeing birds and hearing music as confirmation of communication from a loved one,” she explains. “But one of the easiest forms of energy to measure on Earth is electricity. Many family members report lights, TVs or battery-operated toys going on and off.”She was sitting with a family gathering information for a memorial service, when the music station twice played one of their mother’s favorite songs, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” “What are the odds that one song would be played two times in one hour?”It’s also happened to her, personally.
Remember the woman whose husband was dying and had told her how glad she was to have met her? Mys got home quite late that night but couldn’t sleep. She was sitting at her computer when the overhead fan began running — all by itself. “I felt like it was her husband thanking me for comforting his wife and letting me know he was listening the whole time.”She explains what may be the inexplicable with a combination of theology and physics. “I believe that God works through the universe on a quantum level of subatomic particles like quarks and leptons,” she offers. It is, she adds a little more simply, “just God showing off.”If all this sounds a little too supernatural, consider this: popular opinion agrees with her.Most Americans say they believe in an afterlife.
A Gallup poll found similar results — along with nearly three out of four saying they also believe in angels. As for signs from beyond the grave, a couple of years ago, the “Today” show posted an essay on Facebook by a grieving widow who felt the presence of her dead husband. Hundreds of people responded with their own stories.But if the resurrection message of Easter is true, why do people grieve for the dying? “If we didn’t love, there would be no loss,” Mys answers. “But because there is love, grief in death is about the loss of love, physically, in our lives.”That brings us to this past year — and to a pandemic whose grief has been suffocating.
‘So much loss’
Gone are the nice clothes and leather shoes Mys was taught to wear when she’s in the hospital. For a year now, the chaplain has worn scrubs and personal protective equipment — mask, goggles, face shield and gloves. The uniform of COVID-19.“It’s hot. It’s sticky. You are sweaty,” says Mys, her voice growing heavy. “You can’t breathe. Your skin and your clothes can’t breathe.” The salty sweat that she tastes is more than physical. “You are also tasting the grief of the families and the patients.”As the pandemic took hold, so did the numbness.“You’re surrounded by so much loss and you’re surrounded by so much intensity and you’re with people who are offering the care and you’re caring for the caregiver and those dying and their families. It’s just so overwhelming.”
The hospital staff, she says, has been nothing short of amazing. “One of the social workers said, ‘I’ve never been in the military, I’ve never been in a war, but I think this is what it must be like.’ “Where is God in all this? “Some days, I didn’t have the energy to ask that question,” she admits. “Some days it was, ‘Just let me sleep.’ ”The conversation turns to this Easter and she begins to tear up. “This year, Easter is celebrating the amazing care of healthcare staff, how they save people’s lives,” she says, her voice choking with emotion. “And for my church, as a celebration of community even as they haven’t seen each other.” Like so many other congregations, her church has been worshipping virtually since March 2020.Now, however, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has begun to flicker. Perhaps the vaccinations and the safety measures are working. Perhaps our slow ascent to normalcy has started.
“Indeed, we are seeing a downturn in new cases,” Mys reported after San Diego County dipped into the less restrictive red tier two weeks ago. “We are now beginning to focus on how we may support staff in need of healing and caring for themselves.”Through the weeks of exchanges on Zoom and via email, the chaplain’s tone was steadfastly hopeful. She put it this way: “In the midst of the most horrible of things, in the midst of the worst day of our lives, there is still gratitude and love and joy and meaning — because God redeems our suffering. That’s who God is.”Hers is a front-row seat to the sacred show of tragedy and resurrection — with all that can and can’t be explained. And as her faith tradition teaches, even COVID-19 isn’t the final answer. Because Holy Week leads to Easter.Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a former president of the Religion News Association. Email: [email protected]
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