A Grief Catcher’s Journey: Connecting with Patients’ Stories and Transforming Lives

2023-09-19 17:33:00

(CNN) — Joon Park continues to think about his patients long after their deaths.

He remembers the young man who lived on the streets and aspired to be a musician before cancer took him away. On his deathbed, the man told Park that he regretted not pursuing his dream. His last words were a song about a home he never had.

Remember the woman who lost her newborn triplets. He had never heard a scream as visceral as hers.

Remember the day he held three hands: that of a dying baby, that of a spouse on his partner’s deathbed, and that of a terrified teenager who asked Park to pray for them so that they would not die. It was like living different lives, she says.

Park, 41, has been a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital for eight years and has counseled thousands of patients and their families. The job suits him, in part, because he understands desperation.

He was abused when he was young and was once hospitalized after a suicide attempt.

Sometimes, he is the last, and only, person his patients see before they die. His key role in that moment, he says, is to make them feel like they matter and are heard.

“It’s terrible when a voice is not heard. I’ve seen many voices die,” Park says. “I have learned, in all the time I have spent with all my patients, that each of us has a story and we must give it a voice. The healing lies in the story.”

Park also describes himself as a “grief catcher.” According to him, he catches family members when they fall into deep sadness and helps them capture comforting memories of their dying loved one.

Share your most memorable hospital experiences with your 93,000 followers on Instagram and others 36,000 in X, formerly known as Twitter, where he posts as JS Park and aims to normalize conversations about death and mortality. To protect patients’ privacy, avoid mentioning details that could identify them.

Some of his messages, which offer insight into his patients’ last moments, have made him a spiritual model.

“Some reminders from someone who sees pain every week: You don’t have to smile for anything,” recently published. “Smiling doesn’t mean they’re okay. Laughing doesn’t mean they’re not sad.”

He believes his childhood prepared him for his job.

Park, a second-generation Korean, grew up in Largo, Florida, and thought he wanted to be a writer before studying psychology in college.

He was raised by people with different religious views, including a Christian father and a Buddhist grandmother, and has alternated between Christianity and atheism. His spiritual beliefs were fueled by what he was experiencing at the time.

Park claims he suffered verbal and physical abuse as a child. Her parents were immigrants and were part of a culture that prioritized the authority of elders, but not mental health.

“Trauma can be inherited in the form of dysfunction, and eventually the dysfunction becomes culture,” he says.

Park says that as an adult, he has spent a lot of time coming to terms with his upbringing and trying to heal. He has cried over the family relationships he wishes he had had as a child. And while working through his own trauma, he sought solace in spirituality.

“I was tired, depressed, trying my hardest,” he says. “I had a lot of traumas that severely affected my ability to engage deeply.”

Through therapy, introspection and medication, he says he has learned that his wounds can become portals through which pain or beauty can pass. His desire to be the role model he wishes he had as a child led to his vocation as a chaplain, he says.

Park is one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital in South Florida. Credit: Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA

Park enrolled in seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in 2008, a journey that taught him more about Christianity and led him to be a youth pastor for several years. But he still felt like an intruder.

“I had always hoped to enter a field where I could be a voice and a sounding board for others who experienced trauma like me. Only chaplaincy offered me a real place for that,” she says.

She believes her experiences, good and bad, allow her to establish a deeper, more empathetic connection with patients and their families.

“Before chaplaincy, the help I provided was like a patch to sew my own wounds. But it was chaplaincy that really taught me to see, to hear, to become the other with no agenda, just complete compassion and understanding.”

He calls himself “tera-cure”

Movies and television shows often portray hospital chaplains as pious Bible scholars who try to get patients reconciled with God before they die. Park says his role is broader.

He describes himself as a “tera-priest,” a mix between a priest and a therapist who can talk to patients about any topic.

“We are a comforting presence, without anxiety or prejudice. I’m not there to convert them. I’m not there to convince them, just to comfort them,” he says.

“We can have religious conversations if they want. But a lot of our conversations can range from mental health to crisis to grief. We sit in that space between faith and… mortality. And we’re there for what want to talk.”

Park says his work has caused him “death anxiety,” that is, fear of losing loved ones. “He was sitting with a friend and thinking: ‘This may be the last time he sees him’. We are nothing more than paper lanterns. We can burn at any moment,” he says.

But that has also helped him be fully present in his relationships.

“Now when I sit with someone, I’m with them completely…” he says. “The phone is off. I’m here with you right now, because this could be our last conversation.”

Howard Tuch, director of palliative care at the 1,040-bed hospital, says Park and other chaplains are part of a larger interdisciplinary team that supports not only patients and families, but also staff members. Caring for people at the end of their lives can take a toll on hospital staff who have become close to them, he says.

Park and Samuel Williams have been chaplains at the hospital for years. Credit: Daniel Wallace/Tampa General Hospital

Chaplains provide comfort to patients and their loved ones, Tuch says, but they also focus on who the patient is and what is most important in their life.

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve had conversations with families from a medical perspective,” Tuch says, “but what was really needed was to address who this person was or what their spiritual needs were, even to determine the direction.” of your medical care.

Patients on their deathbed have a common fear

At Tampa General, Park says, chaplains serve in several roles. In addition to spiritual support and listening to patients, they are also present whenever someone needs resuscitation, she says.

Chaplains also call family members to let them know their loved one is hospitalized, and they are present at all deaths and traumatic incidents.

“We help the family know what to do next. If they want a blessing, if they want a prayer, if they just need a religious presence,” he says.

Sitting with people on their deathbeds underscores the importance of being fully present in the moment, he says.

And regret is a common theme among his dying patients.

Most regrets, he says, boil down to: “I only did what other people wanted, not what I wanted.”

“Many of us, near the end, realize that we couldn’t be fully ourselves in life: we had to hide to survive,” he says. “It wasn’t always our fault. Sometimes our resources, the systems and the culture around us didn’t allow it. My hope is always to see and hear fully from this patient, who is now finally free.”

What else worries dying patients? The ones they leave behind, she says.

“Will my loved ones be okay without me? Who will take care of mom? Who will take my father to the doctor? How will my son and daughter cope without me? Even my most calm patients about her death are still worried about how will affect his family,” he says. “It’s almost anticipatory empathic grief, experiencing grief over the future loss of the other person. We are so connected that we often worry about how our own death will affect other people.”

It’s a reminder that patients’ loved ones face a tough road after a loss. But for Park, every prayer spoken, every hand extended and every word of comfort is a step toward healing.

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