What is one of the most powerful ways to care for someone who is suffering?
Twenty-two years ago, while taking a pastoral caregiving class at the seminary, I read a story which changed the way I think about and actually care for those who are suffering. Previously, I had tried to find the perfect words and actions to “fix” the suffering person’s situation.
Then I read the following story by Gregory Richards who was a chaplain to terminally ill children in a New York hospital. He tells of one of his experiences in the following story:
One of the first patients I met was a two-year-old attended by his father. The little boy was suffering the advanced stages of his fatal disease. His father, who had given up every other obligation to be with his son constantly, suffered with him.
The father’s rage knew no bounds. A Christian convert, he had been victimized by a television preacher who, in reply to his cry for help, sent him a form letter asking for more “seed offerings” to work a divine miracle. The father was angry with God. Since I was God’s nearest representative, the anguished parent directed his wrath at me.
Everyday I would literally drag myself back to that sad, sad room to face the drawn, pixie-like fact of the tiny patient and the bottomless cistern of emotion of his tortured father. For most of each visit, the father would rail at me. One day he pulled back the sheet from his son’s distended stomach covered with sores and screamed: “I’d like to have your God here right now! I’d push his nose into the sores of my son’s stomach. Where is your God?”
The father didn’t want answers to his extended, rhetorical questions. He needed to release pent-up emotions, to lance the infected wound of his spirit, to let the poison of his anger out so healing could begin. The only way I could help him was by soaking up his hurts.
No matter how long I listened, though, no matter how much I soaked up his hurt, nothing seemed to help. The father’s rage did not diminish, and I felt helpless and useless. Yet I continued to come. I continued to stand at the bed of this helpless child. I continued to listen to his father’s angry words.
As the end of my hospital assignment neared, the day came for me to say good-bye to the suffering father and son. I expected to be relieved to go, and I thought the angry father would be glad to see me gone. Instead, the father burst into tears, saying to his weak little one what a nice man I was, how much I’d meant to them, how they would miss me.
Some months later I learned the child died. I was told that the father’s grief, while understandably severe, was not volatile. He had apparently gotten out his worst anger in anticipation of his son’s death. In this terrible tragedy, all I could do was be there and listen.
-Gregory Richards, When Someone You Know is Hurting. Copyright @1993.
Be there and listen.
One of our mission fields is right where we live everyday. In that mission field we are surrounded by people who need our care. Listen to them. Help them tell their story. Help them express their feelings. You will give them a wonderful healing gift.