Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
I’m in a room where a father keeps telling his high school daughter, “It’s all in God’s hands now, it’s all in His hands.” The girl has lost both her feet in a car accident and her eyes are blank; she’s looking past her dad, somewhere else, into another universe where the other driver had one less shot at the bar.
I want to tell the father, You’re not helping. Can’t you be more sensitive? Don’t you know it’s a process? Can’t you see it doesn’t work?
Every room, one after another, is filled with friends and family members who try to help with the same kinds of shrink-wrapped platitudes. I’ve heard them all.
“Everything will be okay.” But what if it’s not?
“This is God’s plan.” To suffer this much? Why?
“It could’ve been worse.” But isn’t it already bad enough?
I get bitter about this stuff. You’re not helping, I keep thinking at them. And more selfishly, Let me do my job.
I guess it’s easy to see the dad as the bad guy. And sometimes, the guy who brushes off your pain really is the bad guy. But — I’ve also been learning about why we say this stuff so much.
I’m learning that we’ve all learned a way to cope, whether good or bad, and we default into the only way we know how to get through.
I thought about that father and his daughter, and how much his daughter needed to process what was happening. But maybe for the dad, the platitudes were his initial way of processing. Maybe that was all he knew about coping, and it’s what he needed right then.
Of course, the daughter needed it more. She needed the honest room to talk, to be mad, to felt what she felt. But the dad was short-cutting all the honesty because he never had the room to feel how he felt, either. He never had that chance in the first place.
I’ve seen that there’s no school for this sort of thing; there’s no open venue for vulnerability in an increasingly polarized world; no one is rewarded for saying the harder things out loud. We use religious language and pep talk and positive thinking because it’s all we’ve been trained to do. Westernized prosperity and self-help and self-talk are big businesses. We’re constantly taught that if we “dream big” and “try your best,” that we can “achieve anything” and “like attracts like” and all this other brainwashed, first-world, upper-class tripe that only works in suburbia. We’re conditioned to affirm and encourage and cheer each other on, even and especially by forced, coerced, plastic smiles. Anything else is seen as a “Debbie Downer” or “Negative Nancy” or “toxic triggers” or something. No one is taught how to talk about illness, death, or dying with dignity.
So I get it. I get why we try to fix it so fast. I get the denial. We’re all indoctrinated to be scared of the dark, so we keep it light. It’s easier to spout off a motivational one-liner that looks good in typography. No one tells you how to paint without a brush and to jump in the bloody mess.
So I hear, “God has an amazing plan for your life!” one more time, and before I get too bitter, I have to pause. I have to remember where all this comes from. This is what he knows. That’s the size of his spiritual muscle. It doesn’t make me better than him. It only means I have to be better for him.
I’m trying to have grace for this.
I’m in a room where this guy Steve was robbed by his son, who dropped a granite dinner table on his dad’s head. Steve has a fist-sized triangular hole in his skull. Because of his brain injury, he lost his job, his wife, his house, and most of his memory. He tells me, “My pastor told me to suck it up and tough it out. He said I can’t get mad at God and that God won’t give me more than I can handle, and that I just need to forgive or I’ll go to hell.” I’m suddenly angry at this pastor, this awful, terrible, minimizing, ugly little man. But I also pause to wonder, What happened to this pastor to make him say these kinds of things? Who diminished the pain in his own life? When did he ever have a chance to be honest? And I want to hold empathy for both of them: for Steve first, but also for this pastor who was suffocated by brimstone.
I’m in another room with Jordan, a young guy with cancer, who keeps saying, “But praise God! Hallelujah, I’ve accepted it, God’s will! I’ve accepted I’m gonna die.” I really try to dig deep with him, to get him to confront the fear and uncertainty, to admit this is a hard thing. I’m worried that this guy is sugarcoating extra-hard, and like all sugarcoaters, the crash would be gloriously explosive. But Jordan keeps shaking his head, “Praise God, praise God! God’s will, I know what’s coming, I ain’t scared.” And really, what could I say to that? Who am I to tell him otherwise? What if he really had accepted something as grand as God’s Will? What if this was actually working for him? What if there was no more coping or processing to be done, but he had really made peace? What if I was the insensitive one?
I’m not saying that these platitudes are always okay. It bothers me when we rush past someone’s pain. I’m always going to work exhaustively around them. I’ve just seen that there’s a reason we go there so quickly, and I wonder how I can get underneath it and ride the river back to the deep of the ocean.
I was thinking about how to ask new questions. How do I hold space for everyone involved? How do we make room for the way we cope, without judging the other, and land to a better place together? How do we peel back the layers of all the ways we’ve covered up the dark?
I’m with another guy who has just lost his wife, and I lean over to put a hand on the guy’s shoulder. Without looking, he says, “Leave me alone. Leave us be.”
It wasn’t the time to talk. Not a time to process or to cope or to hear a damn thing.
That’s what he needed right then. To be left alone.
We’re just trying to cope with it, somehow.
We’re all on the way to making peace; we each have our own way up the road. There’s room enough for how we get there.