Sunday Profile: Hospice chaplain turns page, continues her work
Sean Jeung was the first employee at Hospice of the Valley when it was founded in 2008, and doesn’t take lightly her decision to leave her role as chaplain and bereavement coordinator.
“Part of my heart stayed there,” she said.
Her new position as chaplain for Valley View Hospital’s Calaway-Young Cancer Center, however, provides an opportunity her old role didn’t.
“I need to write a book,” she said. “I couldn’t do it in my former capacity because I was never not on.”
The realization came to Jeung, 61, a few months ago, when a bad combination of medications put her in the emergency room.
“I sort of had an epiphany about my own mortality,” she said. “I have all these stories inside me that have been asking very quietly and patiently to have a voice.
“I was not at peace with dying,” she said. “Not everybody gets that reminder.”
Few people know that as well as Jeung.
Born Charlotte Shawn Fowlkes, she spent most of her childhood in Newport Beach, California, graduated high school at 16, and got a degree in social work in her mom’s home state of Virginia. She spent some time working in a drug and crisis center, but turned down an internship with child protective services.
“I didn’t have it in me to bear witness to the things that they have to see,” she said.
In 1987, Jeung passed through the Roaring Fork Valley looking for a place to settle with her first husband and their daughter, Shelby. She became ill and stopped at Glenwood Medical Associates, where Dr. Greg Feinsinger took care of her.
“He was so kind and genuine. I found Glenwood so welcoming to a complete stranger, and I fell in love with it,” she said. “This is the longest place I’ve ever been. This is home.”
After her divorce, she found her first passion teaching at Mt. Sopris Montessori in Carbondale.
“I enrolled Shelby in school and I never left,” she said.
In some ways, it was all part of the same journey.
“I know what I did had some impact on them, but it had a bigger impact on me,” she said of the students. “They were great teachers. All day long I was watching spirit at work. They’re so innocent and so real and connect to wherever they come from.”
In 1994, Sean was introduced to Greg Jeung, a city councilman and checker at City Market who always kept a feather duster in his back pocket. Their first date was at a flu shot clinic in Redstone.
“For 25 years, we’ve gotten our flu shot holding hands,” she recalled. “He really is the wind beneath my wings.”
Jeung got her introduction to end-of-life care in 1999, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“She spent her last year getting her five children ready to walk the world without her physical presence,” she said. “I got back and just thought there was something I needed to do.”
Not long after, Sue Hakanson encouraged her to apply as her successor as volunteer coordinator for Valley View Hospital’s hospice program.
When Valley View shut down its hospice, local hospital boards and foundations began work on what would become Hospice of the Valley. In the meantime, Jeung did double duty between valet work and a chaplain training program.
Chaplaincy, she discovered, is not only a nondenominational position, but not even a solely religious one.
“A lot of people do what chaplains do, they just don’t call it that,” she said. “It’s having someone there to help when you lean into those sharp places. It’s being with people in a rocky time of trauma and drama and loss with the sense that we’re not alone – that there’s something at work that we can’t see or touch that’s all powerful and good.
“That’s so hard for people to hear when it seems like nothing is ever going to be OK again,” she added. “I see death as a part of living, and the fear of death sometimes keeps us from living as deeply as we could. So much of the world’s woes come from unaddressed, unrecognized, uncelebrated grief. We are born of loss. You don’t get over it. You don’t forget it. It’s part of who you are, but I don’t think it’s something we should go through alone.”
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