Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number fourteen. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
Sometimes a patient just talks for an hour, and I say two sentences, and that’s the whole visit. The patient usually says, “Thank you so much for your wisdom and advice” — and I hardly said a word.
Maybe that’s a good thing. If I had said too much, I might have messed it up.
But more than that: some patients just want an ear to listen.
I’ve seen the same thing at the homeless ministry. I ask someone, “How are you?” — and the answer is a breathless forty-five minute life-story of financial collapse and arrests and rehab and failed job interviews, and at the end, “You’re so wise, now I’m so pumped up for life.”
From the homeless to the hospital, I see the same craving:
People want to be heard. Because we want significance. Meaning. Dignity. A voice.
Nobody wants to live in a vacuum of silent solitude. If we can tell even one stranger about what we’ve gone through: it brings value to everything we’ve gone through.
I ask a patient, “How are you?” and she tells me about her years of surgeries, every detail of every doctor’s prognosis and prescriptions and specific slices of the scalpel. Each surgery is a harrowing tale of uncertainty—”Will I wake up from this one?“—and I could only nod and sit inside the sorrow.
I ask a patient, “How are you?” and he tells me about his successful global enterprise in the Middle East and all the countries he’s visited and how he hates retirement and he’s too sick to work but he’s just healthy enough to miss working, and I could only agree with his longing.
I ask a patient, “How are you?” and she tells me, “I miss my dog, and I guess my husband,” and she tells me about her dog and all the tricks he can’t do and how she can probably train her husband to train the dog, and at the end I prayed mostly for her dog.
I ask a patient, “How are you?” and she’s so scared about an upcoming surgery, which might finally give her relief from a feeding tube so she can eat normally for the first time in five years, and she wants so badly for the surgery to work, and she describes what it’s like to live off this plastic tentacle sticking out the side of her stomach, and I could only weep with her as she fights hard not to weep.
Some patients don’t want to talk and it takes a delicate navigation through the shallow river into the stirring deep, to open a clamshell with thumbnails: but other patients suddenly bust open, because who else will ever get to hear their story? It’s important to them, and it’s important to talk about it, and talking about it brings some kind of solidifying power, like the ground is coming together underneath a precarious balance, and if it’s important to them, then it has to be important to me, too. And it is.
There was one patient who didn’t want to say anything. I tried to ask questions from various angles, using all the training I could muster, all that spiritual assessment stuff, and it just wasn’t working. He was quite the clamshell, I mean the barnacles and super glue kind.
In my mind, I was giving up and moving towards prayer, because he was listed as a Christian and it was a Hail Mary shot across full court.
I asked, “What would you like to pray about?” — and he talked about his mother, and how lonely and scared she must be at home without him, and then he started weeping like crazy and he talked about his mother’s health and her surgery and how she was visiting the hospital even though she was so sick, and his mother was his big giant important pearl inside, so we prayed for her, and he talked about her some more after that, and that’s the thing he needed someone else to hear.
It can take a long time to get there, but it’s there. We can give a voice to it.