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This is part of a series that looks at extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at health@globeandmail.com.

I got a call from staff at the intensive-care unit about a man wanting to see the body of his uncle. We're the ones who generally deal with viewings after death.

There had been a mix-up when the uncle came into the hospital. He had intended to provide the phone number of his nephew, who was the only person in the family who kept in contact with him, but he had given the wrong number. So no one was able to contact the nephew, and when he couldn't reach his uncle, he called around to different hospitals on Christmas Day, worried that something had happened.

When the nephew eventually came in, he was shaking and tearful. He felt very guilty because he had been spending time with his fiancée and her family, doing their Christmas things. He felt that if he hadn't been doing that, perhaps he could have been with his uncle when he died.

It's not as though I could give him his uncle's perspective or offer him his uncle's forgiveness – if needed. I asked him to consider whether he was being too hard on himself and explained that guilt is often part of the grieving process. His uncle had substance-abuse and mental-health issues, and this nephew had really hung in there with him when no one else had. So I tried to help him acknowledge the good that had been there.

By the end, he was beginning to find a sense of peace. When he left, he said, "Thank you. This was very helpful."

I suppose this made an impression on me because I don't have a spouse or kids. I probably related a lot to the uncle and I really appreciated what this nephew had done to maintain a relationship with him.

In spiritual health and pastoral care, we offer emotional and spiritual support to people during some of the most difficult days of their lives. It's the day they've been diagnosed with cancer or been told their loved one is not going to get better. The biggest part of the job is to be a listening presence and to help people explore and frame the questions for themselves: How do I make sense of this? How do I go on?

Witnessing somebody else's loss can remind us of our own loss – the loss of my parents, for instance, or friendships that ended. Sometimes things within us are triggered or mirror the situation we're dealing with.

In another case I had, a woman in her 30s was dying of ovarian cancer. She and her husband and their two young children had been praying and praying for a miracle – that she would get better. There was a moment when she was on her deathbed and her kids were trying to cuddle up to her as tight as they could. They were putting pressure on her abdomen, causing her excruciating pain, but she wanted them huddled close.

Seeing the pain on her face and the love that was there, I wondered: Why? Why is she dying? There's a part of me that wanted to yell at the universe, yell at God: Why is this happening? Why are You not answering these prayers? They're good people!

That's the mystery of life and death; prayers that get answered and hopes that get dashed. Sometimes it doesn't make sense, and you have to be honest and open about those moments.

Philip Weaver is the manager of spiritual health-pastoral care at Providence Health Care in Vancouver.

Read more stories in this series here.

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