Tuesday, January 17, 2012

pastoral clinical week 15


I met with one of my residents at her mother’s viewing and funeral this morning. It was as good an experience as I could have hoped for and helped me to recognize some of the ways in which I’ve been privileged during this experience.

First, the preparations for making her aware of her mother’s illness and death were more complicated than they needed to be. But this should be expected, I suppose, when dealing with a family whose relationships are as riven with bitterness and suspicion as those between her sister, the resident’s husband, and the resident’s children are. The complications were magnified by distrust between the sister, her other sister, and her husband, each insisting someone else should be the one to tell her about her mother’s illness and death, but none willing to let an outside source do it. Finally, her husband visited and told her about it, and then we went into the question of whether she wanted to attend the funeral and who would take her.

But this morning’s experience made all that moot. She was welcomed into the grieving group in a way I wasn’t entirely expecting. I have sometimes wondered if her husband is behaving lovingly toward her in response to what he hopes for others to see; but I saw some behaviors between them that seemed genuine, and I didn’t think he could know anyone was watching or listening to him. They were little things, like his gentle wiping of the drool that pools in pools in the cleft between her chin and chest (which is something I also do repeatedly, thinking of her dignity) and running his hand soothingly over her hair. At one point, while he took her to use the bathroom and I was watching outside the door to ask anyone approaching to wait a few moments until she was finished, one of her sisters-in-law said she had to take her child in to throw up, and in the moment when she opened the door, I could see her husband slowly and carefully lowering back into her chair. I am convinced that he is genuine in his dedication to her.

Similarly, a woman who grew up with my resident, went to college with her and with whom she shared an apartment for years, and who is a nurse now in Buffalo, came directly to her when she walked into the funeral home, got down on one knee to be at her level, hugged her, and then spent most of the funeral talking with her, running down memories and experiences, and at times crying with her. The affection in her eyes was wonderful to see.

Her children, with whom there are apparently many issues—I discovered in talking with them that both had spent the intervening years since her debilitating aneurysm living with their father—most particularly their unwillingness (according, separately, to both her sister and husband) to visit her, attended the funeral. (My resident has three children and a fourth adopted daughter whose name has not come up and I didn’t think it was prudent to ask about her. The two who live closest came.) Her eldest son came directly up to her when he came in but awkwardly stood next to his father while he said hello, and then just as awkwardly stood around during the viewing, the funeral, and the social time afterward. Her daughter, who lives in St. Paul, pointedly ignored her mother when she came in, managing to catch her dad during one of the times while I sat with my resident alone while he mingled, and then passed without looking at her when she went in to sit down. (She was looking at me out of her single good eye then and didn’t see her walk past.) But after the funeral she came over to her mother and took her hands and got down on her knees to hug her. She looked up at me as if to tell me, “My daughter. This is my daughter.”

If she didn’t have a good time, which I doubt anyone can say they have when they attend their mother’s funeral, at least she didn’t have a bad time. This whole experience affected me profoundly, as I felt privy to a few hours’ window into the intimate and previously functional life of someone who’s entered my life as a person in need of constant, sometimes overwhelming, care.

On my drive back to the facility, I reflected on how many intense but common experiences I’ve been allowed to share with residents during this CPE. I’ve visited people in the hospital, spent time with them while they were most vulnerable and afraid of death, sat their bedsides while they were in the process of dying and then handled their bodies after they died, talked with them about their families and their relationships with other residents, talked them down when they’ve been angry or frustrated. Outside of birth and marriage, these are the most intimate and bewildering experiences most of us have and most ministers go through with their congregants, only I have been privileged to see them in the course of a few months’ time. I am humbled by their power.

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