Ugly people die early

"The normal case does not exist when dying"

Volker Eschmann, when did you first think in connection with Corona: Something was going to happen?

At the Aarau Cantonal Hospital, an infectiologist informed all employees about this virus at an early stage. However, I only became really aware that it was very serious when the authorities canceled the Basel Carnival. A few days earlier I had enjoyed the Lucerne Carnival as an active participant. Now I thought to myself: You don't just cancel such a big event with over a hundred thousand people on the roadside for fun. With the first corona patients in the hospital, the ugliness of this disease got a tangible face for me. Despite all the prior information, we were surprised by their unpredictability. I remember one case right at the beginning that got under my skin a lot.

What happened in this case?

A man who had just retired had contracted the virus while on vacation. Although his lungs were slightly damaged, he looked otherwise vital. He was confident that he would be released from the hospital at the weekend. So I said goodbye to him on Friday evening, unsuspecting. When I asked about him on Monday, I learned that he had passed away on Saturday, just 24 hours after our conversation. This shows how insidious this disease Covid-19 can be. Despite all the similarities, there are many different disease courses. And therefore no certainty either. For nobody. Even in the hospital, the course of the illness varies from mild to very severe.

All the better when someone recovers from the illness.

Most people are released from the hospital again. However, I also experienced tragic events here, for example, that patients with breathing problems were admitted to the hospital and said goodbye to their loved ones, who had also tested positive but showed no symptoms. In the Covid-19 ward, the condition of the patients deteriorated so drastically that they were in an artificial coma for two to three weeks. When they finally woke up, they found out that their loved ones had died of the virus in the meantime.

The people who work in the hospital like you have got to know the ugly face of this disease. For many others, however, the more than a thousand deaths in Switzerland are nothing more than a number.

For me there is something diabolical about this disease. That's why it annoys me when I hear people say almost indifferently: I don't follow the rules - if it hits me, then it just hits me. In their ignorance, these people may infect other people who are attached to their lives. If they were to see first hand what the virus can do to a person, they would hardly be talking like that anymore. Because nobody wants to die that way. The restricted freedom of movement helps endangered people survive. Where you have to add: The vast majority understand this and show solidarity.

How has your work as a hospital chaplain changed since Corona?

It happened before, albeit seldom, that a patient would say on the head: I am not interested in a conversation. Then I wished them a speedy recovery and said goodbye. But I haven't seen that since the Corona crisis. The ceiling falls on people's heads. You no longer have any visitors - all of them, not just Covid-19 patients. That is why I perceive the patients to be more grateful that someone is there for them to talk to. I just experienced that again yesterday. I introduce myself to a patient and see his skeptical look, as if he were thinking: What does he want from me? I assure him that I am simply there for him when he wants a conversation. Suddenly he starts talking and doesn't want to stop. When he finally gets tired, he says: It would be nice if you could visit me again.

"What kind of god would that be who sent us this terrible virus?"


What do the patients want to talk about?

Pastoral care means more than just a bit of "gossip", it is a psychological and spiritual conversation offer. Most patients come up on their own initiative to questions that are of an existential nature: What do I want to do with my life? What is important to me Who is important to me What sense does it all make? Sometimes the exchange is limited to the non-verbal. If a Covid 19 patient is struggling with severe shortness of breath, he does not necessarily want to talk to existential questions. Then eye contact is enough. When you look a person in suffering in the eye, you can see a lot without talking about it.

What do the dying want before they die?

It's very individual. There is no normal case in dying. Some want me to pray for or with them. Others desperately want their loved ones to die. Sometimes also to reconcile at the last moment. However, there is also the opposite, namely those who die precisely when their loved ones are out for a quick coffee.

How do people say goodbye?

What I've never seen before is the typical death scene in a film: someone talks, says goodbye, closes their eyes and dies. There are people who wrestle and fight with death until the end, others fall asleep peacefully, just as it is in the obituaries. Often the dying can no longer express what they want. I do not interpret, but am just there for this person if I can assume that it is okay with them. Sometimes I put my hand near his hand, but never on top of it. Man is free to take the hand. This is how I understand my task: accompanying, giving space with which people search for their sources of strength and resources. It is not my job to evaluate and certainly not to impose something on someone.

Are there moments that are difficult for you to endure?

Yes there is. But it is part of the job that I reflect on my feelings and not turn the grief of the dying person or the relatives into my grief. This is the only way I can perceive what is happening to the other person. Later I try to deal with difficult moments with a ritual. If I do without it, I feel bad. Therefore, before I leave the hospital, I light a candle in the prayer room - for the people I have been in contact with. This and a short prayer help me to say goodbye to them and to avoid the so-called mental cinema. But that doesn't always work. Certain situations run after me. For example, when prospective parents learn that their child will be born dead. Or when I accompany a seriously ill patient for months and his hope is noticeably dwindling because he suffers one setback after another. These are stressful moments that I cannot simply forget at the push of a button.

Why is this virus plaguing our world?

(Thoughts for a long time.) I don't think I can answer that.

You can also formulate the question differently: Why does God allow this catastrophe?

It does not fit into my image of God to say: "God punishes his beloved creation." What kind of god would that be who sent us this terrible virus? If I assumed such a punishing God, then after Auschwitz, praying would no longer have been possible. Millions of people died in agony who were never guilty of anything. I understand the longing for clarity, but I have no answer to this question. Enduring this tension is part of it for me.

Author Adolf Muschg believes that we are facing a new beginning due to Corona. How do you see it

Some bubbles have burst, such as the gospel of growth. The word globalization has acquired a terrible aftertaste. Nevertheless, I am not sure how sustainable everything is and whether the applause from the people on the balconies will also have a positive effect on the wage negotiations of the carers - these highly motivated helpers. I wish that we can save the good things in the time after the crisis. Although it is by no means certain how long this will take. As of today, we have to learn to live with this type of threat and always remain aware of its danger.

Volker Eschmann, thank you for this interview.