These Are Your Stories #46 – The Scream

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Our story this week comes from my brother James. Jim donated many stories to this show over the years, but this one has always stuck with me. My brother recently passed away and I wanted to present his story in his own words. Here is the original manuscript of a story that he titled The Scream. It is not for the faint of heart.

-Ron

The Scream - Edvard Munch
The Scream – Edvard Munch

There are many ways in which people encounter the ineffable, some of them are terrifying.  Ron gives us, his fans and listeners, opportunities to share these encounters through his show. I know that it’s sometimes difficult to tell these stories because our memories disturb us. I know that because I find no pleasure in recalling this particular event. But I’ve told the tale in one of my books and the feedback I got showed me that it helped some readers who had similar experiences. So I’m reluctantly sharing it with all of you now.

One of the great privileges of my life was the opportunity to work as a hospice chaplain caring for hundreds of dying people over five years. Death is the boundary of life as we know it and like any borderland, the order that normally governs daily life fails at the edges of things. The approach of death can be an occasion for ecstatic joy but there are also passings shrouded in oppressive darkness. One thing can be counted on, death is always an event filled with discernible spiritual energy.

Knowing that I was always careful when approaching a death setting. As a chaplain, I worked for a government-sanctioned For-Profit hospice company. I was part of a team that included a physician, nurse, nurses aides, a social worker, a chaplain, a music therapist, nutritionists, and so on. I believed that caring for my team was as much a part of my job as comforting the dying and their families. As part of that care, I made it a practice to deal with the spiritually unsettled nature of death by offering on their behalf a silent prayer for protection every time we approached a place where someone was actively dying. That prayer, rooted deep in the ancient church, was simple: “Lord, let your holy angels take charge of us and that the wicked one has no power in this place.”

One Wednesday I was called to a nursing home where a young female client was dying. I was told that three members of my team were already present in her room. On this visit, I forgot to offer my prayer. That, as it turned out, was a mistake. What I saw when I entered the private room staggered me. The patient was sitting up in bed but was not conscious. That position was unusual enough but wasn’t what caught my eye. I was shocked by her face. It bore the expression made famous by Edvard Munch in his painting titled “The Scream”. Which was later made famous in advertising for a movie bearing the same name. 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Her expression didn’t resemble the image it WAS that image precise in every angle and detail. I will never forget it because it’s burned into my mind. But there was more. Below her head and shoulders, which were oddly propped up against the headboard, was the rest of her body. It was encircled by polished round black stones spaced several inches apart. At the foot of the bed, a dark candle flickered, slowly melting into a pitch-black pool of wax. The drapes were closed so the room was a dusky gray. Presiding over the scene was a man in a black cloak that concealed his face and body completely. That man, who I took to be her spiritual advisor, sat in stony silence in a corner of the room and never said or did anything to acknowledge our presence. The air near the bed was cold and clammy. When I looked at my hospice team I could see we were all suffocating in the evil atmosphere presided over by that silent dying scream.

After this had gone on for a while I started to feel sick. So, I resorted to a hospice worker trick. When a patient was just hanging on, seemingly forever, we would sometimes explain to the family that people often waited until they were alone so they could let go of life in privacy. The idea was partly true but was mostly a way to give a worn-out family or tired team members an excuse to get out of the death room.  They could breathe some fresh air, go to the bathroom or get something to eat. Families usually accepted the opportunity with gratitude. In this case, I offered the idea entirely for the sake of my hospice staff and they all thought it was definitely the thing to do.

Once outside the room all four of us instantly formed a tight and frightened circle. We didn’t say anything except a few muttered oaths like “Oh my God!” I offered a prayer including the one I should have said much earlier. But it was too late, a spirit of fear and hopelessness had found its way into each of our souls. The only thing we knew for sure was that we did not want to go back in that room. We also knew that as professionals that we had to do something. So, we made a plan. Each of us, one by one, would enter the death room, spend a few minutes doing what we had to do then leave to be replaced. 

I was in the room as the labored breaths that accompanied death slowly expanded fully followed by the deep sigh that marks the moment of death. Looking at the body I saw that the terrible scream remained. Her dead eyes were wide open and fixed in a baleful stare directed straight at me. At that moment I came close to screaming as well but turned my back instead. 

After that, it was all routine. One of our nurses pronounced her, our social worker arranged for the body to be picked up and we each escaped to our cars. I learned later that all four of us attended various churches the following Sunday. This was unusual because two team members never went to church. I suspect it was partly because the dark mood we picked up that day just wouldn’t go away. 

That Sunday the two of us who were active in our respective churches experienced the same extraordinary event. In my case, as I walked into the sanctuary my head reeled and I fell to the ground in a dead faint. I quickly recovered and was aware that a crowd had gathered and someone was urging people to call 911. That woke me up fast. I stood up, claimed I had just slipped, apologized, and headed straight for the parking lot. At that moment the oppressing spirit dissolved and never returned.

This story has a kind of funny postscript. Government regulations require each hospice team to provide a full year of support services to bereaved families. This includes having a staff chaplain preside at the funeral of the deceased if requested. To my amazement, relatives of this woman asked for me. They wanted a service appropriate to the faith she was following at the time of her passing. Now, I’m an ordained Lutheran pastor and I was sure there was no way I could do that. Unfortunately, the company I worked for insisted that my contract required me to perform whatever service was demanded and that if I refused I would be fired. The situation created quite a stir in the office. But my fellow team members risked their careers by standing with me in my refusal and the company eventually backed down. I will always be grateful not just for their support but for the fact that I could end this terrible story on a note of grace.

Jim Thompson – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

This Week’s Podcast: On the program this week we recover from a crazy event. We were supposed to have a Ghost Stories With Sylvia, but the entire recording was corrupted and I didn’t know this until late. So, I have to scramble to put together a replacement show. So, please tune in this week and find out what I did! You can listen to this podcast on Thursday at Ron’s Amazing Stories, download it from Apple Podcasts, stream it on Stitcher Radio or on the mobile version of Spotify. Do you prefer the radio? We are heard every Thursday at 10:00 pm and Sunday Night at 11:00 PM (EST) on AMFM247.COM. Check your local listing or find the station closest to you at this link

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