By Faith Karimi, CNN
(CNN) — Joon Park still thinks about his patients long after they’re gone.
He remembers the young man who lived on the street and had aspired to be a musician before cancer took him. On his deathbed, the man told Park he regretted not pursuing his dream. His last words were a song about a home he never had.
He remembers the woman who lost newborn triplets. He’s never heard a scream as visceral as hers.
He remembers the day he held three hands: a dying baby, a spouse at their partner’s deathbed and a terrified teen who asked Park to pray for them so they wouldn’t die.
It felt like living through different lifetimes, he says.
Park, 41, has been a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital for eight years, and has counseled thousands of patients and their families. The job suits him, in part because he understands despair.
He was a victim of abuse at a young age and was once hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
Sometimes, he’s the last – and only – person his patients see before they die. His key role in that moment, he says, is to make them feel like they mattered and are being heard.
“It’s such a terrible thing when a voice goes unheard. I have seen so many voices die,” Park says. “I have learned, in all my time with all my patients, each of us hold a story and must be given a voice. In the telling there is healing.”
Park also describes himself as a “grief catcher.” As he sees it, he’s catching family members as they fall into deep sadness and helping them capture comforting memories of their dying loved one.
He shares his most memorable hospital experiences with his 93,000 followers on Instagram and another 36,000 on X, formerly known as Twitter, where he posts as J.S. Park and aims to normalize conversations around dying and mortality. To protect patients’ privacy, he avoids mentioning any details that could identify them.
Some of his posts, which offer glimpses into his patients’ final moments, have turned him into a spiritual role model.
“A few reminders from someone who sees grief every week: You don’t have to smile through anything,” he posted recently. “Smiling does not mean they’re okay. Laughing does not mean they’re not sad.”
He believes his childhood prepared him for his job
The son of Korean immigrants, Park grew up in Largo, Florida, and thought he wanted to be a writer before studying psychology in college.
He was raised by people with differing religious views, including a Christian father and a Buddhist grandmother, and has alternated between Christianity and atheism. His spiritual beliefs were fueled by what he was going through at the time.
Park says he was subjected to verbal and physical abuse as a child. His parents were immigrants and part of a culture that emphasized elderly authority but did not prioritize mental health, he says.
“Trauma can become inherited as dysfunction, and eventually dysfunction becomes retained as culture,” he says.
Park says he’s spent a lot of time as an adult reconciling with his upbringing and trying to heal. He’s mourned the familial relationships he wished he had as a child. And as he worked on his own trauma, he sought solace in spirituality.
“I was tired, depressed, trying my best,” he says. “I had a bunch of trauma that severely affected my ability to engage deeply.”
Through therapy, introspection and medication, he says he’s learned that his wounds can become portals for pain or beauty to pass through. His desire to be the role model he wished he had as a child led him to his calling as a chaplain, he says.
Park enrolled in a seminary school in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in 2008, a journey that taught him more about Christianity and led to him becoming a youth pastor for several years. But he still felt like an outsider looking in, he says.
“I had always hoped to enter a field where I could be a voice and sounding board for others who experienced trauma like I did. Only chaplaincy gave me a real place for that,” he says.
He believes his experiences – both good and bad – give him a deeper, more empathetic connection with patients and their families.
“Before chaplaincy, the help I gave was like a patchwork to sew up my own wounds. But it was chaplaincy that really taught me to see, hear, become the other without agenda – only complete compassion and understanding.”
He calls himself a ‘therapriest’
Movies and TV shows often portray hospital chaplains as pious Bible-toters trying to get patients right with God before they die. Park says his role is more encompassing.
He describes himself as a “therapriest” – a cross between a priest and a therapist who can talk with patients about anything.
“We’re a nonanxious, nonjudgmental, comforting presence. I’m not there to convert them. I’m not there to convince them, I’m just there for comfort,” he says.
“We can definitely have religious conversations if they want to. But a lot of our conversations can go from mental health to crisis to grief. We fit in that space between faith and … mortality. And we’re there for them in any capacity that they want to talk.”
Park says his job has left him with “death anxiety” – fear of losing his loved ones.
“I would sit with a friend and I would have this thought, ‘This might be the last time I ever see them.’ We are just paper lanterns. We can just burn up anytime,” he says.
But that has also helped him be fully present in his relationships.
“When I sit with someone now, I’m with them completely …,” he says. “Phone is down. I’m here right now with you, because this could be our last conversation.”
Howard Tuch, director of palliative care at the 1,040-bed hospital, says Park and other chaplains are part of a larger interdisciplinary team that supports not just patients and families, but staff members as well. Taking care of people at the end of their lives can take a toll on hospital staffers who’ve grown close to them, he says.
Chaplains provide comfort to patients and their loved ones, Tuch says, but they also focus on who the patient is and what’s most important in their lives.
“I can’t tell you the number of times when I’ve had discussions with families from a medical perspective,” Tuch says, “but what was really needed was attendance to who this person was or what their spiritual needs were – even in determining the overall direction of their medical care.”
Patients on their deathbed have a common fear, he says
At Tampa General, Park says, chaplains have several roles. In addition to spiritual support and listening to patients, they are also present every time someone needs resuscitation, he says.
Chaplains also call family members to alert them that their loved one is hospitalized, and are present at every death and trauma incident.
“We assist the family with what to do next. If they want a blessing, if they want a prayer, if they just need a religious presence there,” he says.
Sitting with people on their deathbeds underscores the importance of being fully present in the moment, he says.
And regret is a common theme among his dying patients.
Most of the regrets, he says, come down to: “I only did what everyone else wanted, not what I wanted.”
“Many of us near the end realize we were not able to fully be ourselves in life – we had to hide to survive,” he says. “It was not always our fault. Sometimes our resources, the systems and culture around us did not allow us to. My hope is always to fully see and hear this patient, who is now finally free. ”
What else do dying patients worry about? Those they’re leaving behind, he says.
“Will my loved ones be OK without me? Who will look after mom? Who will take my dad to the doctor? How will my son and daughter get along without me? Even my patients who are most at peace with their dying are still anxious about how their own death will affect their family,” he says.
“This is almost an empathic anticipatory grief, experiencing the grief of the other person’s future loss. We are so connected that often we worry about how other people will be affected by our own death.”
It’s a reminder that patients’ loved ones face a tough journey after a loss. But for Park, every prayer uttered, every hand held and every word of comfort is a step toward healing.
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