By Francine Poppo Rich
From the moment Bob came to our nursing home in January 2020, he began to tell me stories of Jessica, his wife of 60-plus years, how she was the love of his life and how he believed it was his fault that she died.
On their anniversary the year before, he would say, Jessica had been reaching forward on the stairs to hand Bob a steak to cook on the grill. She fell forward, he couldn’t catch her, and she died about a week later. Each time Bob told me the story, he cried. As the chaplain, I would listen to Bob’s pain, hold his hand, and we would pray — often directly to Jessica — to help Bob feel at peace over Jessica’s death. But he was not at peace.
Bob was Catholic and loved receiving the Holy Eucharist. He felt closest to Jessica when he did. He would also tell me about his love for sailing and golf; the many lives he touched as a physical education teacher for 35 years; and his tryout in his youth to play major-league baseball.
But Bob was a simple man at heart. He never had children, so his life had been filled with Jessica. “I have to go to Jessica’s grave on June 25, which is our anniversary,” he told me, many times. “I have to bring her flowers, kneel at her grave, and I have to say I’m sorry for not catching her that day.” And then he would cry.
But of course, a few weeks later, our facility shut down. Then the country shut down. Then Bob contracted COVID-19. True to his strong character, he would tell me during our daily visits that he did not have this awful virus. He just had a little fever, he felt a little weak, and he would be fine. “Now, about that trip on June 25 to the cemetery,” he would say. “How will I get there? Will you come with me and say a prayer and help me find her grave?”
In his heart of hearts, Bob knew that this trip would now take a lot of careful planning. I continued to assure him that he was going, that June 25 was far away, that he just needed to focus on getting stronger, and that we needed to continue to pray.
And so we did. Because of strict isolation restrictions in New York, Bob was confined to his room well after he healed from COVID-19. Sometimes I struggled with his expectations. There were days when I had to pray for patience. If I visited him in the morning, he would request a visit at the end of the day. And every conversation ended in my assuring him that the trip to the cemetery was still happening.
Our leadership team worked together, as we always do, to make the arrangements. Bob invited a few family members and friends to meet us at the cemetery, he requested a favorite aide for the day, and he gave me money to buy roses for Jessica.
On June 25, we set out. It was sunny, extremely hot, and New York humid, but Bob did it. He wheeled up to Jessica’s grave, we joined in prayer with his friends, he told Jessica how much he loved her, and he said he was sorry. Then he placed the flowers on her grave, and he cried. Rivers of tears. But that night, Bob was so relieved that a beautiful peace came over him. He had finally forgiven himself. Over and over again, Bob thanked all those involved in making his trip happen.
With our nursing home still under strict visitation restrictions, Bob spent the next few months mostly in his room, watching baseball and football. He didn’t cry nearly as much anymore. Mostly, he would engage in a calm, content life review about trips he took with Jessica to the Bahamas, and he would look at their wedding photo and state how beautiful she was.
Shortly after his 85th birthday, Bob passed away suddenly. It was completely unexpected, and many of our staff members felt the loss, especially his favorite aide. I was called in to say prayers, and I prayed for his perfect reunion with Jessica. I realized in that moment that maybe Bob’s restlessness was all about this last item of unfinished business. That visit to Jessica’s grave was the final piece of a puzzle he had been putting together his entire life, and he just couldn’t go to her until it was complete. Once it was, he was ready.
As I prayed, the beauty of chaplaincy became so clear to me. If we really and truly listen to what our patients and residents are saying, what they’re not saying, what they’re doing, and what they’re not doing — if we can enter their worlds completely for just a second — their spiritual care needs will become clear. We don’t even have to understand those needs. We just have to provide the vehicle and maybe go on their unique trip with them. Then, and only then, can we truly say that we, as chaplains, are continuing Christ’s healing mission.
Francine Poppo Rich, BCC, is a chaplain at Good Samaritan Nursing and Rehabilitation in Sayville, NY.