Joon Park still thinks about his patients long after they’re gone.
He remembers the young man who lived on the street and had 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.
He remembers the woman who lost newborn triplets. He’s never heard a scream as visceral as hers.
He remembers the day he held three hands: a dying baby, a spouse at their partner’s deathbed and a terrified teen who asked Park to pray for them so they wouldn’t die.
It felt like living through different lifetimes, he says.
Park, 41, has been a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital for eight years, and has counseled thousands of patients and their families. The job suits him, in part because he understands despair.
He was a victim of abuse at a young age and was once hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
Sometimes, he’s the last – and only – person his patients see before they die. His key role in that moment, he says, is to make them feel like they mattered and are being heard.
“It’s such a terrible thing when a voice goes unheard. I have seen so many voices die,” Park says. “I have learned, in all my time with all my patients, each of us hold a story and must be given a voice. In the telling there is healing.”
Park also describes himself as a “grief catcher.” As he sees it, he’s catching family members as they fall into deep sadness and helping 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 around dying and mortality. To protect patients’ privacy, he avoids mentioning any details that could identify them.
Some of his posts, which offer glimpses into his patients’ final moments, have turned him into a spiritual role model.
“A few reminders from someone who sees grief every week: You don’t have to smile through anything,” he posted recently. “Smiling does not mean they’re okay. Laughing does not mean they’re not sad.”
A second-generation Korean, Park grew up in Largo, Florida, and thought he wanted to be a writer before studying psychology in college.
He was raised by people with differing religious views, including a Christian father and a Buddhist grandmother, and has alternated between…