Women and Men for Others: Be Opened

In this series, Women and Men for Others, I’ve invited people I’ve met over the years to share what God has made known to them about how to use their gifts and life experiences for the good of others, truly putting their prayer into action and living the Ignatian principle of being a person for and with others. To close the series, Zeena Regis, hospice chaplain, speaker, and consultant for spirituality, grief care, and end-of-life care, shares about her journey to be open and connected to the people and families she works within hospice care.

In the weeks before I started a chaplain residency in an inpatient hospice unit, I found every book available related to death, dying, grief and bereavement. I studied the works hoping that the passages I diligently highlighted would prepare me with all the magic words to say to my ailing patients and their families.

On my first day in the hospice unit, it became clear that the busy nurses expected me to get right to work with little in the way of formal orientation. “Are you the new chaplain? Hmm, the patient in room 3B could use a visit. He’s in serious denial. And his family is so dysfunctional. The social worker is working on getting POA (Power of Attorney) in place. Ugh. It’s a real mess,” the charge nurse shook her head and pointed me to the room, making it clear that this is the only report she had time to give me.  I was anxious about what I might find on the other side of the door.

I timidly knocked and hoped I wouldn’t get an answer. A hoarse voice invited me in. The man in the hospice bed struck me as surprisingly young; his gaunt and ashen face showing evidence of his aggressive illness. He smiled at my introduction waving me in to sit at his bedside. After exchanging a few pleasantries with the television playing in the background, his expression changed abruptly. He reached for the remote to mute the volume and turned to me saying “Can I ask you a question?”

I ran through my mental script of stages and phases of grief and death, steeling myself to be his wise guide. “Of course. That’s what I’m here for,” I said with a little too much cheer.  He pointed to the daytime talk show host and said, “You think she’s had work done?” And just like that my script was rendered useless.

In the seven years since that first hospice encounter, I have continued to be grateful for the lesson that gentleman taught me. In Mark 7:31-35, when Jesus heals the deaf and mute man he looks to the heavens and says “Ephphatha” which means “be opened” in Aramaic. At this exclamation, the man’s ears are opened, and his tongue is loosed. I feel Christ’s holy whisper of “Ephphatha” each time I sit with a dying person or a devastated family member.  I am called to be opened. I realized that my work in end of life care is not about having answers, it’s about creating a space for people to grapple with their own questions.  I must be open to truly listening to their story, to Christ’s story, and to how all our stories weave together in the tapestry of God’s kingdom.

In my first weeks as a chaplain, an experienced colleague cautioned me not to get connected or invested in my patients. While I do heed the advice to maintain appropriate ethical and professional boundaries, I have come to find that my work demands investment and connection. I remain open to being touched and transformed by these sacred encounters. I believe that the threshold between life and death is a holy place. And with all holy spaces, one cannot enter and not be altered in some fundamental way.

That first conversation about a TV personality’s plastic surgery gave way to something deeper. I still remember the feeling of his hand in mine as we prayed together. He died a few days later. In opening his door to me, he showed me how to truly be a woman for others through staying open.

For Reflection

  • Where is God whispering “ephphatha” in your life? What is God calling you to be opened?

Go Deeper

  • Read Patches of Godlight and more on Zeena’s website and blog at ZeenaRegis.com.
  • Learn how to better support grieving congregants and get Zeena’s Seven Ways to Support the Dying and Bereaved in YOUR Congregation
  • Zeena helps lead Sacred Journey Hospice Foundation’s Camp Horizon, a free day-long camp in Hampton, GA for children to learn how to cope with the loss of a loved one. For more information about Camp Horizon, click here. To donate to Camp Horizon, click here.
  • More about people for others: Watch this video from Loyola Press explaining more about this Ignatian principle and Pedro Arrupe, SJ, who coined the term.
  • Be a part of the Women and Men for Others series. Share with us about a person who is an example to you of what being a person for others means via this simple Google form. Watch for us to share submissions on social media!

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