Joon "J.S." Park: "I'm not there to convert (patients)... I'm just there to comfort them." Credit: Courtesy of Hoon Park
(CNN) -- Joon Park continues to think of his patients long after his death.
He remembers the young man who lived on the street and 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.
Remember the woman who lost her newborn triplets. I had never heard a scream as visceral as hers.
He remembers the day he held three hands: that of a dying baby, that of a spouse on his partner's deathbed, and that of a terrified teenager who asked Park to pray for them not to die.
It was like living different lives, he says.
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Park, 41, has been chaplain at Tampa General Hospital for eight years and has counseled thousands of patients and their families. Work suits him, in part because he understands despair.
He was abused as a young man and was once hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
Sometimes, he is the last, and only, person his patients see before they die. Their key role in that moment, he says, is to make them feel that they matter and that they are heard.
"It's terrible that a voice is not heard. I've seen a lot of voices die," Park says. "I have learned, in all the time I have been with all my patients, that each of us has a story and we must give it a voice. In the story is healing."
Park also describes himself as a "grief catcher." According to him, it catches family members when they fall into deep sadness and helps 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 about death and mortality. To protect the privacy of patients, avoid mentioning details that can identify them.
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Some of his messages, which offer insight into his patients' last moments, have made him a spiritual model.
"Some reminders from someone who sees pain every week: You don't have to smile for anything," she posted recently. "Smiling doesn't mean they're okay. Laughing doesn't mean they're not sad."
He believes his childhood prepared him for his job.
Park, a second-generation Korean, grew up in Largo, Florida, and thought he wanted to be a writer before studying psychology in college.
He was raised by people with different 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 experiencing at the time.
Park claims he suffered verbal and physical abuse as a child. His parents were immigrants and were part of a culture that prioritized the authority of the elderly, but not mental health.
"Trauma can be inherited in the form of dysfunction, and eventually dysfunction becomes culture," he says.
Park says that, as an adult, he has spent a lot of time coming to terms with his upbringing and trying to heal himself. He has cried for the family relationships he wishes he had as a child. And as he worked through his own trauma, he sought solace in spirituality.
"I was tired, depressed, trying my hardest," he says. "I had a lot of trauma that severely affected my ability to engage deeply."
Thanks to therapy, introspection and medication, she says she has learned that her wounds can become portals through which pain or beauty passes. His desire to be the role model he wishes he had as a child led to his vocation as a chaplain, he says.
Park is one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital in South Florida. Credit: Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/Zuma
Park enrolled in a seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in 2008, a journey that taught him more about Christianity and led him to pastor youth for several years. But he still felt like an intruder.
"I had always hoped to enter a field where I could be a voice and a sounding board for others who experienced trauma like me. Only the chaplaincy offered me a real place for it," he says.
She believes that her experiences, good and bad, allow her to establish a deeper, more empathetic connection with patients and their families.
"Before chaplaincy, the help I gave was like a patch to stitch up my own wounds. But it was the chaplaincy that really taught me to see, to hear, to become the other with no agenda, just complete compassion and understanding."
He calls himself a "tera-cure"
Movies and TV shows often portray hospital chaplains as pious biblical scholars trying to get patients to reconcile with God before they die. Park says her role is broader.
He describes himself as a "tera-cure," a mix between priest and therapist who can talk to patients about any topic.
"We are a comforting presence, without anxiety or prejudice. I'm not there to convert them. I'm not there to convince them, just to comfort them," he says.
"We can have religious conversations if they want. But many of our conversations can range from mental health to crisis to grief. We place ourselves in that space between faith and... mortality. And we're there for whatever they want to talk about."
Park says her job has caused her "death anxiety," fear of losing loved ones.
"I was sitting with a friend and thinking, 'It might be the last time I see him.' We are nothing but paper lanterns. We can burn at any time," he says.
But that has also helped him to be fully present in his relationships.
"Now, when I sit down with someone, I'm with them completely...," he says. The phone is turned off. I'm here with you right now, 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 broader interdisciplinary team that supports not only patients and families, but also staff members. Caring for people at the end of their life can take a toll on hospital staff who have become close to them, she says.
Park and Samuel Williams have been chaplains at the hospital for years. Credit: Daniel Wallace/Tampa General Hospital
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 life.
"I can't count the number of times I've had conversations with families from a medical perspective," Tuch says, "but what was really needed was to attend to who this person was or what their spiritual needs were, even to determine the overall direction of their medical care."
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Deathbed patients have a common fear
At Tampa General, Park says, chaplains serve several roles. In addition to spiritual support and listening to patients, they are also present whenever someone needs resuscitation, he says.
Chaplains also call family members to let them know their loved one is hospitalized, and they are present at all deaths and traumatic incidents.
"We help the family know what to do next. If they want a blessing, if they want a prayer, if they just need a religious presence," he says.
Sitting with people on their deathbed underscores the importance of being fully present in the moment, he says.
And repentance is a common theme among his dying patients.
Most regrets, he says, boil down to, "I only did what others wanted, not what I wanted."
"Many of us, near the end, realize that we couldn't fully be ourselves in life: we had to hide to survive," he says. "It wasn't always our fault. Sometimes our resources, systems and culture around us didn't allow it. My hope is always to see and hear fully this patient, who is now finally free."
What else worries dying patients? Those they leave behind, he says.
"Will my loved ones be okay without me? Who will take care of mom? Who will take my father to the doctor? How will my son and daughter cope without me? Even my most calm patients with his death remain concerned about how it will affect his family," he says.
"It's almost an anticipatory empathic grief, experiencing grief over the future loss of the other person. We are so connected that we often worry about how our own death will affect other people."
It's a reminder that patients' loved ones face a tough road after a loss. But for Park, every prayer spoken, every hand outstretched and every word of comfort is a step toward healing.