Present for Goodbyes

Sarah Gillespie
January 17 2024

By Sarah Gillespie

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”
―Edna St. Vincent Millay

A few days before she died, Kelly said, “Thanks for coming.” A friend and I were visiting her at the hospital where I had completed my first clinical pastoral education unit a year earlier. It was at the end of that prior summer that Kelly’s tumor was found and I slept on a couch in a different hospital room, waiting to hear what was next.

Since then, I’ve been present for many goodbyes, mostly in my role as a hospice chaplain. I have witnessed those who linger on for days, with one foot in this world and one foot in the next. I have witnessed those who die quickly and almost unexpectedly. I’ve been present at deaths so peaceful it felt like a made-for-TV movie. And I have seen people die in a way that shakes my beliefs to the core. Death is a regular part of my job, which makes small talk weird for me at parties.

But Kelly’s death was different. We were in seminary together. She was the person I crammed with for Church History and Hebrew Bible, making flashcards and timelines in the library late in the evening. During her cancer treatments, we sang hymns as she shaved her head (take that, chemo). We celebrated when they thought “they got it” about six months later. .. and then mourned again when it came back, this time to her brain. I still remember drinking bourbon (in honor of Kelly’s Kentucky heritage) in a bar around the corner from the hospital while she had brain surgery.

The surgery didn’t work. Kelly remained in the hospital. And on that last visit, no profound words were shared. She didn’t tell me about seeing a light or feeling at peace. She didn’t share any regrets or unfinished business. She was quiet mostly, which was typical of Kelly. And amidst her sleepy state, she simply said, “Thanks for coming.” I knew from my intro to chaplain training that these words meant the visit was over. And I respected that, told her I loved her and said goodbye―like I had a thousand other times.

As I reflect back on this, almost ten years later, her words ground me. Thanks for coming. Thanks for showing up. You did enough. You can go. I still need to hear that, and somehow she’s still helping me learn the truth behind those words and behind my ministry. Showing up is enough.

Prayer

Loving God, thank you for being with us as we grieve and love. Thank you for helping us show up, even when we don’t know the right words. Thank you for letting us remember those we have lost. Remind us that our presence is important. Remind us that we are held by a Love that will never let us go. Amen.