Chaplain offers support when family member faces death

Rev. Denise Parker Lawrence says she tries to offer whatever support is needed to families facing the death of a loved one during the holiday season.
Courtesy of MJHS
By Patrick Donachie

For Rev. Denise Parker Lawrence, the holidays bring a particular challenge for her profession. Lawrence, a pastoral care coordinator, works with a team at the non-profit MJHS to provide hospice, palliative and in-home care for patients and families throughout the borough. Lawrence’s goal is to provide families facing the death of a loved one with the support they need.

“There’s a quote that states, ‘You don’t have to do or say anything to make things better. Just be there as fully as you can,’” Lawrence said. “That explains what I do.”

Lawrence worked as a chaplain for nine years and trained at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway. She recently celebrated her fourth anniversary with MJHS, formerly known as Metropolitan Jewish Health Services, which has an office in Brooklyn that also covers Queens.

Lawrence works with an interdisciplinary team, and as other members address medical and social-service needs, she strives to offer comfort and spiritual support. She said each family and faith tradition is different and needs to be respected.

“Sometimes you’ll have families who are extremely emotional, who may not want outsiders in the home with them. You have to respect that family and give them the space to help them facilitate healing,” she said. “The thread that runs through all the cases is letting them know they’re not alone and they have support.”

The grief process can take many shapes, and Lawrence said she works with a family member to find a road to resolution and acceptance. She said sometimes she asks the family member to write a thank you note — or a letter of apology — to the patient, hoping that will help the family member identify the source of their particular grief. Her job also includes exploring whatever faith tradition, if any, a patient ascribes to, and coordinating appropriate services.

Sometimes the care extends to those without a faith tradition. Lawrence recalled a case when she was making rounds in a hospital and visited the bedside of an ill patient. The patient’s husband requested that Lawrence leave, saying he didn’t want that “religious stuff.”

But later, Lawrence was called to accompany the family member of a recently deceased patient to the morgue. It turned out to be the husband she encountered earlier. Lawrence walked with the man as he accompanied the body of his deceased wife to the morgue. Lawrence and the surviving spouse walked in silence together and after they arrived, the husband turned around and kissed Lawrence.

“I was shocked. He said, ‘I have to apologize to you. Thank you for just being here with me,” she said, acknowledging how important it was “just to have another person walk with him at one of the most vulnerable times in his life.”

Lawrence said it often feel like deaths are more prevalent around the holidays, and undoubtedly the grief can be more acute in contrast to the festive and familial atmosphere of the season. Lawrence said her job as a chaplain is to “walk with the person where they are.”

“You walk with that person as a human being, and we all have needs,” she said. “And we all respond to loss and grief.”

Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdonachie@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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