Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two Moments of Grace

As a volunteer chaplain, I'm always supposed to remember that I'm not the one doing the real work: God is. In training we learned the mantra, "God is in the room before you enter, and God will be in the room after you leave." This is a comforting thought, especially since my ED visits are so often fragmentary, cut short by tests, procedures, and the arrival of medical staff. (I've learned to wrap up prayers very quickly when the ED doc shows up.) But after three and a half years of volunteering, I take a certain pride in what I've learned and in my accumulated experience, and I tend to forget that God can work through me even when I have no idea what I'm doing.

A recent shift reminded me of that. Twice.

Scenario #1: I enter a room containing two parents and a child. The child is asleep; the parents look exhausted. When I introduce myself and ask if they need to talk, one of the parents lets loose a slow, methodical, furious tirade. They've been here for twelve hours. The kid's fine, but they can't go home yet, and they were subjected to the indignity of having to talk to Social Services because someone was alarmed about something that, it turned out, wasn't a problem. They've never gotten good service at this hospital; they should have gone to The Other Hospital, the one where they always get excellent care. They'll never come to this hospital again. This hospital sucks. The child hasn't been able to get a decent meal and neither have the parents, who also haven't slept in God knows how long, and did they mention that ridiculous visit with Social Services? Over nothing? Have they mentioned that they've been here for twelve hours?

I stood and listened to this litany with an increasing sense of dread. The parents seemed past enraged, locked into their own fatigue and indignation. They'd already washed their hands of this hospital, and I doubted very much that anything I could say would make them feel better.

"I'm sorry you've had such a difficult time," I told them. "Can I get you some water?"

It felt like a really lame offer. They'd been here for twelve hours: surely someone had brought them water, and anyway, there was a sink in the room. I expected one of the glaring parents to dropkick me through the door.

But instead, their faces softened. "Oh, that's so nice! Thank you! No one else has offered us anything. Yes, we'd love some water!"

I still don't believe that no one else had offered them water, but I got it for them anyway. In the process, I found a stuffed toy for the kid. When I went back into the room, the parents beamed and thanked me.

And suddenly everything turned around. They told me how much their kid, still asleep, loved stuffed animals, and then we got onto living pets, and they told me long, funny stories about their wonderful dog. They were laughing and relaxed; their sense of perspective had come back. They remembered now that they'd gotten very prompt service when the medical team thought something serious might be wrong with their child: things had only slowed down when the condition turned out to be more minor, a case in which sicker patients would take priority. They even had good things to say about Social Services. "You know, maybe it was okay that they talked to us, because they gave us the phone number of a resource we might be able to use."

All because a volunteer offered them some water.

Actually, this is probably one of those cases that illustrates how important it is simply to listen to families, a task for which the medical staff all too often has no time. This is part of why I think all EDs need 24/7 dedicated chaplaincy coverage, not that I expect that to happen anytime remotely soon.

Scenario #2: The patient has a minor injury, but wants prayer. When I ask what we're praying for -- "your medical complaint, obviously, but is there anything else or anything more specific?" -- I get a very long answer. There are family issues, money issues, and job and housing issues. This is one of those cases where most of the medical staff would never consider calling a chaplain, because the medical condition isn't complicated. But it's the only thing about this woman's life that isn't.

During our conversation, she tells me that she was sexually abused as a child. We talk about the research showing that writing about trauma can help people overcome their painful experiences, and I give her some tips about how to write down her story without retraumatizing herself. "You could write at the top of the paper, 'I'm in control of this story now.' You could write letters to the child you were, telling her that she didn't deserve that."

The patient's face lights up. "Oh, those are good ideas! I'm going to try those!"

So far, so good. But when I start praying with her, I find myself fumbling. What were all those issues again? Have I forgotten anything? And what should I say about the abuse? I can't not mention it, but how does one talk in a prayer about something so hideous that it's made a lot of people stop believing in a loving God?

I find myself offering a few trite, awkward sentences about how we don't always understand why bad things happen, and they make us angry, and all we can do is get through them the best we can and trust that God's there with us during them. The sentences feel lame.

The whole prayer feels lame. I'm a lot better at extemporaneous prayer than I used to be, but this isn't one of my better moments.

We say "Amen." She opens her eyes. I'm sure she's going to thank me politely and send me away.

Instead, she says, "That was beautiful. Thank you. You covered everything! You even covered my second marriage to an abusive husband."

I blink. "You didn't tell me about that."

"No, I didn't. But your prayer covered it anyway."

"We call that grace," I tell her. Among preachers, it's axiomatic that every time you step into the pulpit, someone in the congregation will hear your homily as a personal message, even if you thought you were talking about something completely different. People hear what they need to hear.

"That was so wonderful," the parishioner will say. "I felt like you were talking directly to me! I really needed that story about aardvarks today!"

You learn to say, "Thank you. I'm so glad it was helpful." You learn not to say, "But I wasn't talking about aardvarks. I was talking about geckos. The homily had nothing to do with aardvarks!"

Apparently the same principle holds for prayers at hospital bedsides.


  1. God's grace, through you, it seems.

  2. Thanks. I just finished a unit of CPE at one of our state mental hospitals. It's so true that what people often need is no more--and no less--than to be acknowledged and listened to. Bless you and your work.

  3. "someone in the congregation will hear your homily as a personal message, even if you thought you were talking about something completely different"

    I've had this experience more than a few times via poems I've written. I try to think of myself more as a transmitter than as an author.

  4. Your patients are lucky to have you.


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