In life there are times and events where we find our own pain triggered by someone else’s. Witnessing their sorrow rekindles the tender place inside us where our own sorrow is held. For me the event today was the memorial service in the hospital for a young nurse killed by a random shooting in New Orleans. I sat with her parents and her teenage daughter in the front row. The daughter was handling the moment well, sharing video clips of her puppy before the service began. Her grief remained hidden for the most part. Too intense to process publically, perhaps. Her parents were more in touch with their grief and that is why, after the service, I went to my office and cried. I too have lost an adult child. I wanted to tell them, “me too.” But that wasn’t appropriate. No one can ever know the actual pain of another’s grief, however similar the cause. And it wouldn’t be of any comfort to them to let them know that they will still be hurting after 12 years.
This is one thing that chaplaincy has taught me: when someone else shares their story we should not take it as an opportunity to share ours. The problem is, this is the default response most of us have in our conversations. We wait for the tiniest of pauses while the other person takes a breath and we jump in with our tale of woe. That is not to say we don’t have legitimate pain, but we need to respect the person who is opening up to us in that moment and give them the space to share their hurts. And when the time and context is right we need to share our story, but with someone else who is not in the midst of new grief.
I am a staff chaplain in a hospital with four critical care floors and a cancer unit, and naturally I spend a lot of my time on those critical care floors. My time is spent with patients and families who are grieving. They are all grieving the loss of their “normal” – life will never be the same. Patients are grieving the loss of health and independence, at least temporarily. They may also be facing the loss of their careers, which for many people is where they find meaning and purpose, especially if they have no children.
For elderly patients the situation is even more traumatic. For them loss of independence signals the beginning of the end. They know they will quickly lose muscle tone lying in a bed all day, and if they have suffered any kind of fall they are probably told they can no longer live alone, that they may need to move to a “facility” if their family cannot take them in. The staff avoid the words “Nursing Home” because for so many patients these words summon unbidden memories and smells, a foreboding and a sense of horror. Most everyone who is elderly has had a friend or family member in a nursing home, and has left it begging their own family, “please don’t ever put me in one of those places.” And now here they are discussing “Long Term Care Facilities.” For families who know their loved one’s wishes there is tremendous guilt even having the conversation.
Where can hope be found in that room? As a chaplain I do not claim the right to offer hope. Pious platitudes are an offense to the emotional sensibilities of all concerned. So then what? At first all that can be done is to sit as people digest all they have heard and offer them a supportive presence. At some point a simple question can refocus the emotions in the room to good memories and life’s blessings. It is easier for the people in the room to access “hope” looking backwards. To an elderly spouse or life partner, “How long have you been together?” This often elicits stories of first meetings and life’s milestones, usually accompanied by smiles and tears, both. The next step is harder: Where is hope now, in this room in this moment? A comment or question about the care being offered on the unit often leads to expressions of gratitude. The focus of hope becomes timely assistance when the nurse’s button is pushed, pain medication when needed, the gift of clean bedding, getting the meal that was requested, the kindness and gentleness of staff. Hope can also be present in the person of a relative not seen for years and the opportunity for reconciliations and mended fences.
And then there is the question of future hope. As a chaplain I make no assumptions about people’s future hopes. Even those who self-describe as “not religious” will ask for prayers of healing, and may want to believe in more than simple annihilation at the moment of death. Even atheists desire a way of making sense of the life and death of their loved one – did it matter that they lived? The scientific understanding of the cycle of birth and death, of the reabsorption and recycling of matter, can provide a sense of immortality – a future hope. And for everyone in the room the sharing of memories reminds them that the loved one will live on in their stories. Their loved one was part of the great tapestry of human existence and changed the history of the world for all time – another source of future hope.
If they are of the Christian, Muslim, or Hindu faiths, devoted or even loosely affiliated, prayers of intercession are a tradition, especially in times of crisis. People’s beliefs in the efficacy of these prayers can often resemble a child-like, “Santa Claus” view of God. But there is another view that makes such prayers meaningful: prayer doesn’t change God it changes us. In prayer we place ourselves consciously and intentionally in the presence of the Divine – the source of life and healing, courage and hope. That awareness can bring a sense of peace into the ICU room. Physical healing may not be the outcome of these prayers, but there is the possibility of spiritual and emotional healing. The family is reminded that they are not alone. They have a source of strength and courage that comes from the Divine who is present within them, in the room, in the universe, and will support them in whatever comes. And furthermore, the patient is not alone now, and never will be alone. All that is remains in the “Hands” of God, and for theists that is the Future Hope.
I was shown this prayer today by a chaplain colleague. We were lamenting the fact that people feel the need to offer platitudes to the grieving: “It was God’s will.” “There is a Plan.” And we both agreed that if all that happens is indeed because God willed it, then we cannot believe in God, or at least in that God. Because how do you tell the parents of a 3 month old that just died that her suffering and death was God’s will, and then in the next breath expect them to pray to that God for strength?
They say there is a reason,
They say that time will heal,
But neither time nor reason,
Will change the way I feel,
For no-one knows the heartache,
That lies behind our smiles,
No-one knows how many times,
We have broken down and cried,
We want to tell you something,
So there won’t be any doubt,
You’re so wonderful to think of,
But so hard to be without.
“So,” you ask me, “who is the God you believe in?” This is one of the most important questions, perhaps THE most important question, for all theists to ask themselves. And it is one I will be pondering on this blog.