In an environment where the boundaries of life and death blur, Pastor Joon Park, 41, witnesses the final moments of patients every day.
During his eight-year tenure as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital in Florida, Park has provided guidance to thousands of patients and their families, as noted by CNN on September 19.
In his conversation with CNN, Park described himself as a “grief catcher.” He visualizes his role as catching family members as they are overcome by sorrow, while helping them hold onto cherished memories of their departing loved ones.
To Park, stories have the power to heal. He often holds the hands of patients during their final moments, offering solace and ensuring their voices are heard.
“I’m sometimes the last or only person they see before passing, and I strive to make them feel heard,” Park reflected. “A prayer, a hand held, a soothing word can offer healing in such times.”
He shares these profound moments on platforms like Instagram, where he has garnered over 90,000 followers.
For instance, he recently shared, “A few reminders from someone who witnesses grief regularly: You don’t always need to smile. Just because someone smiles doesn’t mean they’re truly okay. Laughter doesn’t negate sadness.”
Joon Park is a second-generation Korean American, born and brought up in Largo, Florida. His religious background is diverse; his father was a Christian, while his grandmother practiced Buddhism. As a child, he endured verbal and physical abuse from his traditionally-minded immigrant family. These experiences led him to confront severe mental challenges, even leading to an attempted suicide. For a period, he renounced his faith, embracing atheism. Much of his adult life involved therapeutic interventions to come to terms with his traumatic past.
He initially pursued psychology in college, and once aspired to be a writer. However, his journey through a seminary school in Wake Forest, North Carolina, in 2008 brought him closer to Christianity, resulting in his service as a youth pastor. Despite this, Park often felt like an outsider.
Chaplaincy, he found, was where he truly belonged. “I desired a role where I could resonate with those who’d faced trauma like I had. Chaplaincy was the answer,” he expressed.
He humorously dubs the profession as “therapriest”, clarifying misconceptions about chaplains. “We’re a calming, nonjudgmental presence. My goal isn’t conversion or persuasion, but simply comfort,” he asserts.
Over the years, a recurring sentiment he’s encountered among patients is regret. Many express having lived for others, rather than pursuing their own desires.
“Towards the end, many realize they couldn’t be their true selves due to societal pressures,” he notes. “It’s often not their fault. Sometimes external factors didn’t allow for authenticity. I strive to truly understand these patients, especially when they can finally be honest.”
For Park, hospitals are sacred spaces where he’s privileged to hear these final stories.
BY YEOL JANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]