A Hospice Chaplain’s Heart: Miss Lilly’s Story

Working as a hospice chaplain, there’s never a dull moment. This is true for every patient who comes to our service. You pray, you say, and you do the right thing to give people peace at the end of their lives. My patients have been told they have limited time left; for some, they are more than ready to go. For others, they fight this reality. I want to share with you Lilly’s story.

Sometimes, patients or family members opt out of having a chaplain visit during their stints in hospice care. There are various reasons why. Much of the time, they misunderstand the role of a chaplain. I’ll leave it at that. 

My responsibility as a hospice chaplain is to visit patients in nursing homes—those who, again, have been told they do not have long. My days are never dull; they are filled with the various personalities I meet doing my job. One overwhelming fact about my work is that I will meet a variety of personalities. And for that, I’m thankful.

On Fridays, like most days, I visit a particular list of nursing homes based on their proximity to each other. I remember meeting Miss Lilly on one of these Fridays.  On any given day, I will visit six or seven patients and countless others who are not my patients. All who live within the walls of a nursing home are precious to me, even when they are not hospice patients. I have also worked with fifty to seventy-five nurses in the nursing homes I visit. When I first meet a nurse, I introduce myself, and then I leave them with one thing.

“If someone you think needs a visit from a chaplain, even if they are not in my service, you must let me know,” I’ll say. I’ve had several handfuls of people (not my patients) that nurses have asked me to visit. Without question, I find time for them.  This is how I met Miss Lilly. 

I was called to one of my nursing homes to visit a patient who was not doing well, as she was coming to the end of a life well lived. As I entered the long hallway, I was greeted by one of my favorite nurses— Kathy, who had spent thirty years in that same nursing home. Kathy loved every patient she had, and it showed; her patients responded well to her. Kathy was slow to talk, which was never a problem for me. I talk enough for three people. Yet this time, she beat me to the draw.

 “Oh Chaplain, I’m so glad you are here! I need you to see one of my patients,” she beckoned. I inquired which one.  

“The one thing I thought about all day today, Chaplain, is that she is doing okay, yet I can’t get her out of my mind. Over the years, I have grown to know precisely what that means. This patient needs to be loved up. Her family is on their way, but they live out of state,” Kathy responded.

“Chaplain, I do not think she is going anywhere anytime soon, but I was hoping you could work your magic on her.” With that, Kathy did not wait for me to ask what room or say yes. She blurted out a room number. 

“Kathy, let me see my patient, and then I will go sit with Miss Lilly,” I promised.

As always, I spent a reasonable amount of time with my patient, and then I said my goodbyes and promised to return. Then, I ventured toward the room number Kathy had given me. As I approached the door, I noticed the door was closed, which was unusual. Most nursing homes keep the room doors open to better care for the patient. Knocking is always the protocol for closed doors in these situations. So, knocking on the door, I heard a faint voice say, “Come in.”  As quietly as possible, I slowly opened the door and entered the room. 

The first thing I noticed was that the room was dark. No lights were on, and even the TV was off. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the small allowance of light. As the room slowly became focused, I saw Miss Lilly, tiny, frail and lying neatly in the bed. The edges of her covers were tucked on both sides and pulled up under her arms. I was struck by how petite Miss Lilly appeared.

“Hello, sweet Lilly,” I said. “How are you?” 

“Okay,” she said very softly. “I am just so tired. I can hardly keep my eyes open.” 

She asked me how I was doing several times during my visit, and to each, I responded and reminded her, “I won’t stay long.” 

“How are you?” Miss Lilly asked me. 

“Fantastic,” I responded. “Can I be anything other than great in the presence of such a sweetheart?”

A big smile stretched across her small face, warming my heart. I loved seeing that smile.

“Any pain?” I asked. “No pain,” she responded, “just tired.”

While we conversed, my eyes flitted across the walls of the room. I studied the photos surrounding her bed; her walls were covered with photos! Countless faces: I figured at least three generations of family photos lined those walls. 

“Someone in this room is loved,” I remarked. 

“Yes, I am!” Miss Lilly agreed, replying nearly instantly. I fetched a chair from across the room and placed it beside her bed, and then I sat down. Miss Lilly asked me why I was visiting her.

“My nurse, Kathy, sent you, didn’t she?” she wondered. I nodded in agreement.

“She is a sweetheart of a person,” Miss Lilly said, confirming what I’d always known about Kathy.

While we continued our conversation, I again stood up, repositioning my chair as close to the head of her bed as possible. Then, I sat down. 

“Miss Lilly,” I began, “I’m a chaplain. I just wanted to stop by and see how you were doing.” 

A moment of silence passed, and I realized that Miss Lilly had fallen asleep. She would again many more times before I left her. 

When Miss Lilly awoke, I again asked her about the photos on the wall. She smiled brightly, one by one illuminating the stories and family connections of the faces in the images. Each person was a dear loved one, and speaking about them gave Miss Lilly a temporary boost in energy.

She reached out for my hand and tried her best to hold it tightly. Finally, she gave up and placed her tiny hand in mine. I’ll reiterate, Miss Lilly was a petite little lady whose hands were smaller than I could’ve imagined.

From then on, she never took her hand out of mine during my visit. She spoke joyfully about each life she’d helped create. Some of those photos, I found out, were of her four sons and three daughters, and their sons and daughters. In fact, some of them had their own children.

Imagine! From the love of this seventy-pound, four-foot-nine-inch lady came three generations of a legacy that would live on long after she was gone.

In our conversation, she talked about her one and only love. His photo was on her bedside table. She still blushed slightly when she spoke of him.

“There was only one man in my life,” she told me. “Paul. He was all I needed. And when he got sick, all he could do was tell me he was alright; he would focus on me. After his passing, my children said to me that he had spoken to them individually, explaining that they would need to care for their momma after he was gone.”

“Even with all his suffering, Chaplain, he never let me know until almost the end. And even then, he worried about me. I couldn’t have found a better man.”

I must admit that at this point, I was at a loss for words. Those who know me personally would find that hard to believe, yet it was true. Lilly downloaded a lifetime in the fifteen or twenty minutes we spent together. 

After she finished her story about Paul, Miss Lilly began drifting in and out of sleep— at least, that’s what I thought it was. Meetings like this with Miss Lilly were why I got out of bed every morning and headed out into the world. I was perpetually excited about the possibility of meeting another Miss Lilly.

I’m a firm believer that everyone, without exception, has a story to tell. Miss Lilly’s life was just more proof of that fact.

She was asleep again. In our conversation, Miss Lilly told me that she was a woman of faith and believed she would soon be reunited with all those who had passed before her. Before I went, I whispered that I would leave her with a prayer. She smiled, closing her eyes again, and I began to pray. 

Remember, I never let go of her. Or should I say, she never took her hand out of mine? When I was done, I said my goodbyes quietly, not to wake her, and rested her small hand back on her chest.

In my profession, I have spent much of my time carefully watching my patients breathe. Miss Lilly was no exception. That is a habit I have had for years; after I stood up and looked down at the sweet lady, I paused and watched her more carefully. It seemed like minutes, but it was only a few seconds. Something came over me, and I knew that she was gone. She was no longer present with me.

“Of course,” I thought, “I could be wrong. I’m certainly no medical doctor or nurse.” I slipped out of her room and beelined toward Kathy, who immediately asked me what was wrong. She derived from my expression that I had something to say.

“Kathy, I think Miss Lilly is gone,” I said. “But I’m not a doctor, I could be wrong.” Together, we walked back to Miss Lilly’s room. Kathy looked her over, and before even checking her vitals, Kathy confirmed that she was gone. 

“Her family will come in the morning to be with her, as they do every week. But I am thankful you could visit her,” Kathy said.

I confided in Kathy the contents of my conversation with Miss Lilly and how she had kept falling asleep. Then, silence filled the room, and Kathy began to shed tears. After thirty years of caring for elderly people, she still weeps when they pass.

Kathy left the room to call Miss Lilly’s family. I slipped back into the chair beside her bed, gazing at the countless photographs of her and her loved ones. I left her room with no sadness, no sorrow. Miss Lilly was now with the ones she loved so much. I was thankful and honored to have had my time with her. 

Blessings, Miss Lilly!

Chaplain John

PS: I have received several calls from Miss Lilly’s family. They all wanted to hear their mother’s last words. When I explained to them how she focused on her family and loved them all, that gave them peace. I was blessed to spend time with a lovely person. And from our visit, came peace for the family that loved her so.

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John Wenderlein

Chaplain John lives in Debary, FL, with his wife and Yorkie. He has a master's in biblical/theological studies and works as a Hospice Chaplain. He has written two books currently. Remember Me is his first, which deals with end-of-life stories as seen through the eyes of a Hospice Chaplain. His second deals exclusively with the Vietnam Veterans as they are starting to come to the end of their lives and how life dealt with them from the time they first came home. These books can be found on Amazon or his webpage, www.Remembermejw.com. His third book in this series will come out sometime in mid-2025. This chronicles his work at the heart of COVID-19 at a large hospital.