Death is a terrifying raider for most of us, stealing lives out of the blue, but it’s a close colleague for hospital chaplains. From breast-cancer patients dying peacefully as a music therapist plays the harp in a palliative-care unit to the frantic and often futile effort to save lives in intensive care, the end of life is a daily business for people like Buffy Harper.

The staff chaplain at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax says her training in theology, philosophy, sociology and psychology helps her gain an important perspective on death.

“We have the training to maybe understand death and dying a little differently than somebody who is just hitting it,” Harper says. “There’s the acceptance that death is a part of life, though that doesn’t make it any easier.”

A key part of the job is empathetic listening, mixed with a strong dose of professionalism. “We hear (the suffering) and we feel it, but you know, it’s not my mother or my father who’s dying,” she says. That steady, calm presence can be crucial for the family. “They don’t need me to be crying with them.”

Harper says the deaths that hit chaplains hard are ones that touch on something raw and familiar in them. Peer support is critical and the chaplains she works with use group prayer, yoga, meditation, tai chi or just talking with each other to get through the rough days. Spiritual strength plays a big role, too.

“It’s not just me doing this: I have faith behind what I do.”

You can’t be in the middle of all that suffering and not take your blows. Harper vividly recalls a teenage girl committing suicide. She stayed with the family all night as the medical team tried to save her.

“Two days later, I had aches and pains all over my body and I knew that the shock and the trauma of being with that family (had finally) hit me.”

So why does she keep going back? Because death is going to happen and she can ease the suffering of those dying and those left behind.

“The family is just so grateful that you’ve stayed with them; you’re a witness and you’ve sat with them. You didn’t leave because it was uncomfortable,” she says. “It happens to people every day. We see it, we know it’s not as traumatic as you tend to think when you only see it once or twice in your life. There is a sense of peace around it. It’s not the enemy.”

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