SEETHING was I, when at the first opportunity to really sob, I had a social worker barge in and start talking process. I lashed back at her in the most assertive way my emotions could allow. With tears streaming down my face and my nose running, cradling Nathanael’s body, I said, “I’m sorry, but does this have to happen now? This is the first opportunity I’ve had to really be sad. Would you leave us alone, please? Thank you.”
Only eighteen hours beforehand had we met our deceased son. And with close family invited in to share in our loss at the earliest opportunity, we found 6pm on that Friday night was the first time we had to break down.
The social worker was only doing her job, and she was obviously trying to fit it in before the weekend. I didn’t give her an option to do what she needed to do, because she came and sat down next to the bed and said, “I’m very sorry for your loss… I need to go through these forms with you.”
You know it when you sense that people don’t actually get your loss or what you are feeling; it’s a great deal worse when they pretend to care and prove they don’t. Yet, I still knew I had to apologise, and I did a few days later. That’s another thing; as pastoral carers we don’t want to be placing those who are grieving in a position where they have to do additional emotional work. We ought to relieving the burden, not adding to it.
Because of the above story, the following quote resonates cogently:
“Our role is to respectfully earn our place at the bedside, and never assume that just because a person is vulnerable and sad, and we are competent and willing, that we can enter into their experience uninvited.”
Earning our place at the bedside is appreciating that we step on holy ground. God is, in fact, present, by the very nature of the eternality in our midst. We imagine hearts as antique shops with precious items everywhere. If we make one careless move we push a delicately poised fine porcelain piece to the floor where it will smash. But caution does not mean fear, for in fear there is no abiding peace, and it is Christ’s incarnational peace that we must carry into such sacred space.
“Our role as pastoral carers is to be internally brave, and comfortable enough in our own life story to hold strong emotions in such a way as to offer them to be explored if requested, but equally, to carry them for a time if they are too heavy or painful.”
Counsellors and pastoral carers are only of benefit to the people they help when they are sufficiently healed of their own broken antiquity to be able to operate as a free spirit able to discern the Holy Spirit and do the will of God.
A dual competence then becomes possible: 1) to go into intrepid territory with cautious confidence implicit of safety if it is clear they wish to ‘go there’, and 2) to understand it is our own desire that wishes to ‘go there’ when they don’t, and that to resist such a pull is to serve their interests; for serving our own interest is falling short of the glory of God, and a great injustice.
This seems fundamental, but it’s worth stating: there is a direct correlation between the courage required to do the work where we are comfortable enough in our own story with being able to bear the pain of another’s story. Bearing another person’s pain requires from us the very strength we learned in having dealt with our own pain.
“I never answered her questions because we both knew she wasn’t asking them to hear a reply.”
Many mysteries prevail in the space of loss and grief. Most things cannot be reconciled. Questions inevitably cannot have neat and boxed-up answers. But the unspoken silence dignifies the mystery. The unspoken silence allows the things of God to be as they eternally are. The unspoken silence becomes space for the Holy Spirit to enter, to create capacity in the grieving, and to begin the process of healing.
Isn’t it wonderful the things we can communicate without words? When words only sully the mystery, where truth is hardly knowable, an unspoken silence builds a bridge of intimacy that words would only denigrate and destroy.
“In my most pastorally caring voice I said nothing.”
Astounding is the simplicity in the abovementioned wisdom!
The polar dichotomy of suggesting that a voice says nothing! But that is the key to our method.
The Incarnation is real in us when we realise that our pastoral care is about “life that makes present and visible the realm of the invisible spirit.”
Jesus could communicate the things of his Spirit with few words or no words. That is both our challenge and opportunity. Less is more.
When we govern ourselves as mute — unless to speak would be abundantly appropriate, as it often is — we are able to pray through every vocal deliberation before we even commit to uttering a word.
In any event, many moments in palliative care are exigently sacred. The less we say the more our pastoral method has credibility and veracity. The less we say the more God can say. But to say something at the Spirit’s leading is to obey the will of God.
The less we say in the field of the divine, the more the divine might say in the field of life.
The pastoral carer is a divine advocate; skin-of-skin, the Holy Spirit.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.
The four quotes above, which are among the best I’ve ever read, come from an article by Jenni Ashton called, Pastoral Care for Families in Palliative Care. The profound wisdom in these quotes on being “divinely respectful” in vulnerable spaces has been gleaned through thoughtful reflection over the process of more than two decades. They are pure gold and are worthy of sincere and laboured thoughtful reflection.