Risa's Pieces

Risa Denenberg

Risa Denenberg
Seattle, Washington, USA
February 25
Smart Girls Ink
I also blog about end-of-life issues at http://risaden.blogspot.com/


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JANUARY 28, 2010 11:59PM

When work gets in the way

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Yesterday, I was trying to remember what event brought me to palliative care. I can identify so many moments when death and dying have saturated my life. Over nearly 40 years of working in health care, I have always chosen employment in setting of huge, often life-and-death intensity—abortion clinic, home birth, prison, HIV clinic, Emergency Department, hospice, palliative care.

Along the years, I’ve also amassed somber personal losses: my father died when I was 23 without reconciliation between us; I lost custody of my son to his father; in the 90s a close friend died of breast cancer, my best friend died of AIDS, and my friend and colleague Bayard Britton was murdered by antiabortion terrorist Paul Hill. Loving music and literature, I had a youthful obsession with the loss of so many talented musicians and writers to drugs and suicide. Now I am the elder generation in my family, and death is no stranger. Instead of ignoring death, I became fascinated with it.

But the actual moment I was searching for was this: I went on a silent retreat in the winter of 2004 with a group I was meeting with at the time. In the sweet silence, I felt a calling to become a chaplain. At the time, I had no idea where this came from; I certainly had never had the thought prior to that moment. It was simply what it was—a calling.

I acted on it by enrolling in a Masters program in holistic spirituality at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic college in Philadelphia, where I studied for two years. I enriched this learning by attending a program in Jewish spiritual direction. Shortly after starting that program, I decided to take a job as a hospice nurse, and then continued over the next 6 years to work in hospice and palliative care. I tried to complete my studies, but work got in the way. I also was accepted to a program in clinical pastoral education at the hospital in Pennsylvania where I was working in 2007; again the job got in the way—my boss would not approve the time for me to take part in that program.

Still my greatest support during my years in this field has always been the chaplains. If we don’t understand death as a spiritual event, then we don’t understand death at all. Now that my time is not filled with the medical aspects of death and dying, I can almost hear that still small voice calling me again. Who knows what will happen next? I can only say that remembering how I ended up in this field has brought me a slice of peace.


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You are so beautiful.........
Thanks for this great post, Risa.
I am designing a course for second-year medical students, which will be offered before the clinical rotations. In that course they will meet a chaplain, who will describe his or her role in the hospital. The students need to know before they begin working in the hospital. Thank you for this post.
Work getting in the way...I've known that place often...xox
Risa, I think you would make an excellent chaplain. Reading your posts has been a comfort in the past. You blend a realistic down-to-earth point of view WITH a spiritual calm & acceptance. I am not offering false flattery to say that if I was dying, I would feel graced to have you leading me through the last days.
I enjoyed the essay, though I would say of death that like most issues of philosophical significance, our commonality lies in the questions we ask, not the answers we find. I suppose there's some natural urge to attribute spiritualism to death, though for me I don't expect anything beyond. What I hope is to have spent my time in life such that it was worthy. See text I wrote at the start of my article Erik Naggum on Atlas Shrugged for more thoughts on that.
I hope to have your view of death one day. I am still quite alarmed at the prospect of it.
I always appreciate your posts. r
Your calling makes so much sense in light of the work you have chosen and your experiences and background.
This makes perfect sense, Risa. You give me that sense, that knowing... hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
What a beautiful essay. I read a memoir last year, called HERE IF YOU NEED ME, written by a young woman whose state trooper husband was killed, and who decided to become a chaplain. The memoir was one of the most lovely I've ever read, and your post immediately evoked it for me.
I do hope that life or time or work or whatever we call it, makes space for you to continue to follow your heart's desire to become a chaplain.
It feels, just from your writing, that you would be the right person for the right job.
P.S. the author is Kate Braestrup
I think you already ARE a chaplain. A chaplain nurse who writes really well.
"If we don’t understand death as a spiritual event, then we don’t understand death at all."

Beautiful, Risa. Thank you for that sentence.