Thursday, March 13, 2008

Only Two Prayers

My hospital shift this week began very uneventfully. There were a lot of patients, but everyone seemed fairly cheery. I got lots of requests for water and blankets, but none for prayer.

Three hours into the four-hour shift, I still hadn't been asked for prayer (athough the water and blankets had been flowing at a merry pace). I was starting to think that I was about to have my first shift, in the three-plus years I've been doing this, with no prayer requests at all.

Then, forty-five minutes before I was due to go home, there was a code in another part of the hospital.

I went to the code, as all chaplains are supposed to do, and found two staff chaplains already there. They stayed in the immediate area to be with the patient and several relatives. I went to a waiting room to comfort another relative.

I can't go into specific details about the case, both because of HIPAA and because this situation would be hard to disguise or fictionalize. I can't think of any fictional version that would come close to the awfulness of the actual scenario.

So do this: imagine the most contrived, tear-jerking, improbable medical Movie of the Week you've ever seen. Now up the improbability, tear-jerking and cosmic-injustice levels by a factor of, oh, ten thousand. That's what this case was like. This was one of those cases you'd never believe if it were fiction, one of those cases that would make you roll your eyes, throw the book across the room, and groan, "Oh, come on!" to the absent author.

Remember the scene in GalaxyQuest when Gwen and Jason are running through the chompers, and Gwen (played brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver) sputters at Jason, "I hate this episode! This is a badly written episode!" This was like that, only not funny. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

Sometimes I think God's a really bad writer, because so many of the things we label divine intervention would seem simply ludicrous if someone put them in a story. And when the plot's tragedy and not comedy -- even though Christians cling to their faith in Easter through the worst Good Fridays the world can throw at them -- well, then the stories don't just make us roll our eyes. Then they make us furious.

Sitting with the sobbing relative, I was furious, ranting (silently) at God, "What are you thinking? Come on! Surely you can do better than this!"

The relative, on the other hand -- the entire family, it turned out -- had rock-solid faith. "I've been telling myself two things through all of this: God loves us, and God has a plan, even if we can't see it." And I nodded and made encouraging noises and tried to look pastoral, while inside I was thinking, This is a plan? My cats could come up with a better plan! And if this is your idea of love, I'd hate to see the alternatives!

Deep down, I know better. Honest. I've seen coherent plots spring from bewildering chaos, in life as in fiction. I always remind grieving families (if they're Christian, as this one was) that we don't worship a God who promises to remove all suffering: we worship one who promises to be with us during it. We worship a God who watched his own Son suffer and die, who understands that agony. And we worship a God who promises that new life will arise from tombs.

I said all that to the relative. I said the right things, but I sure wasn't thinking them.

A minister I know likes to remind people that raging at God is a form of prayer. I pass that along to patients all the time. This time, I needed to remember it myself.

And yes, the relative asked for prayer, the first of the shift. I think I managed to do a credible job.

Meanwhile, the medical staff was amazing. A nurse came out to give us regular updates, and was absolutely awesome with the relative: she did a far better job on the pastoral side than I did. And eventually, the patient stabilized just enough -- still in dire shape, but alive against all expectation -- that I felt able to leave. In the meantime, the family had fervently thanked everyone in the vicinity. It was obvious from listening to them and watching them that they have a robust support system: not only are they people of strong faith, but they're close to their doctor (who's also a person of strong faith), and they have lots of family and friends in the area.

Waiting for the elevator to go back downstairs, I saw someone else crying. I introduced myself and asked if I could help. This person, it turned out, also had a relative in bad shape in the hospital (although in less serious condition than the code patient). This person also asked for prayer. But the second scenario included none of the support systems of the first: in this case, there were no other family, no friends, no faith community, no strong connections with caregivers. I do know that the relative had been referred to social services, so that's a step in the right direction. But although the second patient seemed to be in less critical shape than the first, I suspect that the second family will have a harder time coping, because there are so many fewer people to help.

I only offered two prayers at the hospital this week. I wish I hadn't had to offer either of them.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott observes that there are really only two prayers that any of us ever offer: "Help me!" and "Thank you!" This week, I helped two people pray the first. I pray that one day -- sooner rather than later -- both of them will be able to pray the second.

Postscript here.


  1. Susan, I'm glad your shift ended with you providing prayers. I'm also sorry that relative had to deal with a nightmare.

    Have fun on your travel to the Islands. There should be a huge change in my blog appearance by the time you get back. Not up yet but it will be. :)


  2. I believe there is a third kind of prayer that goes like this: "Now, look here, God...." although maybe that is a thinly disguised version of "Help me, help me!"

  3. This is a very moving story. I think at those terrible times when our world has constricted to a dot of fear and pain, we all need to be reminded that there's something bigger than ourselves and this moment. You do that for your patients and for us readers of your blog. Thank you.


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