My friends Mandy and Mel have a daily dinner routine for their extended family and guests; each person must voice a concern and a joy from the day before the meal. This week I’ve had two concerns and one joy. I’ll tackle my concerns first.
I’m not at all in agreement with the statement reported in her verbatim by a fellow CPE-er. I’ve got serious reservations about a Sister-Mary-Sunshine theology which insists heaven is a wonderful place full of light where elderly women are capable of doing cartwheels once there. I’m certain my fellow intern is sincere in her belief. But I am equally certain that, at the very worst, telling a dying woman what is at best an educated guess is some form of pastoral malpractice and, at the very least, fails to take seriously the questions the woman has about her death and the impact it will have on her husband and family and friends. It also may suggest to the woman that having such qualms is anti-God, since who wouldn’t want to hurry up to join such a lovely eternity? How selfish and spiritually ugly must be the doctors and nurses and husband that have tried to keep her in this horrible condition for so long.
My other disturbing situation was with a woman I spoke with about the death of another resident. She started our conversation by asking if the person for whom we’d had last Friday’s memorial was really dead (and this says something about the way people appear and disappear and sometimes reappear without explanation as the people caught up in the healthcare system, especially its mentally ill members, must experience it). We discussed his death and then her parents’ deaths and her own experience of God and trust issues, and I ended our time together by asking if she’d like me to pray with her. It seemed what she expected. I asked her to do the praying but she said she’d rather that I did, and that’s what left me discomfited. I’m all right in communal prayers but as I don’t pray on my own I’m not at all comfortable with one-on-one prayer. I gave it my best shot, stammering out some phrases she’d said and adding my own takes on them, and she seemed sincere when she thanked me. A few days later I spoke with my Christian wife who is more at home with this sort of thing and she suggested that what someone really wants in that situation is the sense she’s been heard and her concerns noted. She also suggested that I try praying out loud on the drive in each day to get myself in the mindset of doing it for other people. I’ve tried that now and confess that I feel a little self-conscious doing it but she is right about my feeling more at ease the more I do it. I’m not about to become an advocate of intercessory prayer or of praying away the disease, but I am better understanding the peace people feel when they hear their fears or their wishes vocalized.
What I feel good about is a short interaction I had with one resident on my floor who, after he’d refused my invitation to join a 7th-Day Adventist service on Saturday, wanted to explain why he’s “pissed off with God.” He was pretty angry about the deaths of his parents and the suicide of his brother, going into detail about the extreme measures his brother had taken to kill himself, all in the space of one year. “Where was God in all that?” he demanded. I said, “I don’t know. And it sounds to me like you’ve got every right to be pissed.” He immediately calmed down and said, “I’m sorry to get so angry, but it still hurts, y’know.” I said I’d have been surprised if it didn’t hurt and that we could talk about it if he wanted. He said maybe later but he was in a much better mood as he left than he had been a few moments before. It seemed a good end to the week.