Courtesy of the Harvard Gazette | 09.23.15

Divinity School program helps teach chaplains how to befriend and comfort the sick and the dying.

Annette Nicolas studied to be a chaplain at Harvard University Divinity School. She works with elders who live in Assisted Living at Brightview in Danvers, Massachusetts.  Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer
Annette Nicolas studied to be a chaplain at Harvard University Divinity School. She works with elders who live in Assisted Living at Brightview in Danvers, Massachusetts. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Looking into the eyes of someone facing death is one of the most powerful things a person can do,” said Annette Nicolas, a Boston Theological Institute student enrolled in a hospital chaplaincy course at Harvard Divinity School(HDS).

Working with the elderly, Nicolas said she once locked looks with a dying woman in her 80s. “I didn’t know what she was seeing in my eyes, but I knew she wasn’t going to let go of my gaze, and I wasn’t going to let go either.”

Nicolas said that to be with someone in death is a beautiful, profound, and almost biblical experience. “I feel blessed to be in that position, and to also study spiritual caregiving at HDS.”

Over the last three years, an increasing number of Harvard and Theological Institute students have studied at HDS with the vocational objective of caring for the spiritual needs of the sick and dying.

Chris Berlin, a hospital chaplain and HDS instructor in clinical chaplaincy, said there is a growing need today — especially as modern technology has prolonged the act of dying — for well-trained chaplains who can speak to the emotional and spiritual needs of the sick and dying in institutional settings. Berlin said that HDS prepares students to meet those needs by teaching them to befriend, listen to, and simply be with the sick and dying. “The human presence is a very healing thing,” he said.

HDS students and their instructors also insist that facing death doesn’t have to be gloomy or depressing. Instead, it can be emotionally rewarding, life-affirming, and even wondrous for both patient and chaplain, they said. Continue Reading