“Chaplain needed on ____.”
This is the page or message we get in the Pastoral Care office when a nurse finds a parent in tears. When I get that message I generally start by looking at the patient’s chart to get a little background. Often its a patient recently admitted whose diagnosis is vague at best. I head upstairs and begin to pray for some words that will comfort this family as they wait to find out what is wrong and what treatment will be recommended.
I often come upon the parent in the family lounge trying to hide the distress they are feeling from the patient. I ask them to tell me what’s going on and out spills a story that generally goes like this: He has been sick for several days and I ignored it. I am a terrible parent. How could I not know that something was so wrong? And all the tests have told us nothing! Why can’t they figure out what is wrong with him? What will I do if they send us home again? How will I know if he is okay? What if I lose him? The feelings are almost the same in every case: guilt, fear, powerlessness. In these moments I mostly listen and validate the feelings being named. When it seems appropriate I will ask them if they want to pray with me. If they say yes, I’ll ask them to name the things they want me to lift up to God and together we begin to pray. As the tears subside, they will then jump up and say, “I’ve got to get back in there. I’ve left him too long.” I promise to check in later and the visit ends.
The next day, I will make my way back to the room and often meet a very different person. The parent is fully in control, sitting beside the bed playing a game with the patient or eating a meal. It often takes them a few minutes to realize who I am because they are in such a different place. I often learn that the doctors have figured at least a few things out, and that a plan is being developed to treat whatever is wrong. The feelings of fear and anxiety have diminished, and they are all feeling hopeful that the patient will get better and be home soon. Again I listen, reflect back to them the hope I hear, and together we pray.
This pattern closely resembles the creative process Jerome Berryman writes about in Teaching Godly Play (p. 136). He writes,
Think of the creative process as a circle. When the creative process is opened we begin to scan for a better idea. This continues until there is an insight, which is then developed and finally there is closure once again.
Of course the circle – our circle of meaning – has had to stretch to make room for the new insight and as with any stretching it can involve some stress and even pain. For the parent of the child in the hospital, the new diagnosis may be easily treated, but it might also be the diagnosis of something more intractable. Whatever it is, their lives are forever changed by this event in the life of their child.
As the chaplain my role is not to make the process of moving from the chaos we feel in the scanning part of the circle to closure move faster or do the work for the parent. All I can do is be a companion on the journey; help the parent feel less alone in the process. Often the chaos is frightening (that feeling of being out of control) for the person who is there and for the people around them. I have seen how helpful it is to stand with a person in the chaos. It seems to steady them…help them get their feet back under them as the water rushes around so to speak.
This is a huge learning for me. My tendency in life is to rush in and try to fix things. If it is anxiety or fear, I want to do what I can to make it go away. I think this “fixer-attitude” is one of the things that led me to feel so burnt out as I prepared to come away on this sabbatical. There were days when I literally felt sick or in pain as I struggled with my inability to fix whatever was wrong. It was as if I was carrying the responsibility of the creative process of everyone in my life and even the parish as a whole. I have discovered this summer, that it is often more helpful to simply come alongside someone and walk with them through the chaos. Again to quote Jerome Berryman,
Children and adults tend to prefer certain aspects of this circle (the circle of the creative process), which are related to their personalities. In Godly Play (and I would add as chaplains or in my role as a parish priest) the mentor attempts to move the children through the whole circle of the creative process, despite personal preferences, so they will have the whole process available to them. This completeness is the gift of the Creator in whose image we are created. Teaching Godly Play, p. 121
Perhaps the best we can do for people plunged into chaos by life is to be the one who believes in them…believes that they have the resources as a child of God to work the process at their own speed and that we believe wholeness will be restored. It might not look anything like it did before, but we know it is coming and we are there cheering them on.