by Marilyn Washburn
How do we care for those who grieve? Specifically, how can and should pastors do that care? Moreover, how do we pastors care for ourselves when we are so frequently mourning the deaths of people we have come to love?
In the decades since I was ordained as a chaplain of a hospice associated with a large inner-city hospital, my thoughts about how to care for those who grieve have changed a lot. I suspect that is true for many others who have tested all that we were taught in classrooms or even in CPE. Indeed, my convictions and suggestions will probably come as little surprise to many of my colleagues; the surprise may come in realizing how many of us now share them. Perhaps articulating new insights will trigger conversations, and our changed thoughts may be both claimed and refined.
Caring for those who grieve, and for myself, begins with caring for those who are dying.
I now think that the best ministry to those who grieve (and the way to experience the healing and consolation grief offers) begins by joining with those who care for the dying. Those vigils may take place in hospital waiting rooms or at the bedside. They may even happen across town in a sanctuary as a congregation prayers together while singing hymns of assurance, reading Scriptures of comfort and waiting to hear that a loved one’s struggle has ended. Keeping those vigils may mean we share the beginning of someone’s dying, even as we celebrate a “benign” diagnosis which nevertheless marks the end of that person’s illusion of immortality. A vigil may last longer than an initial prognosis — and even stretch into the years of quietly savage dementias. These vigils may even be extended by technologies that enable us to be with one another across the thousands of miles separating us.
Whatever the shape of the vigil, being — really being — with those who are dying means they are in my thoughts all the time, even as I care for my children and grandchildren, as I care for other parishioners and patients, as I study and prepare to preach and as I vacation. I would have it no other way and give thanks for their companionship. Really being with those who are dying means intimate friendships, in which I sometimes share my doubts and learn certainties from those whose doubts are ultimate. It means learning new ways to hear God’s calls. It means grabbing sleep on their living room couches, listening uncomfortably to “gallows humor,” being corrected by someone who no longer has time or patience to be polite, and understanding a father’s love for the daughter who is caring for him in the only way she knows how … by “turning a trick” in the next room to pay for his medications.
The boundaries I was encouraged to honor often get in the way.
In medical school, I was encouraged to care for myself by “not getting emotionally involved” with my patients. The advice I was given in seminary was much gentler: Establish boundaries, so you don’t become emotionally exhausted.
I am not exactly sure when I finally realized that just the opposite happened: The more “involved” I became, the more deeply I loved the people I served, the more I came to know them and advocate for them, the more deeply I mourned their deaths, the healthier I became, emotionally and certainly spiritually. It may have been by the bedsides of my teachers, those men and women whose faith and faithfulness I admired and envied, whose theological teaching planted certainty by teaching me how to doubt, who modeled the sheer power of simplicity and silence in ministry. My medical patients in the inner-city neighborhood of the clinic where I worked certainly contributed to that change of heart. They were the patients who began their visits by asking me how the Lord and I were getting along together, who prayed for me and let me know it. They were the friends who invited me into their families and lives while dealing with the stresses and joys of seminary life and preparation for ministry, who celebrated our triumphs together, and who bared their souls to me in moments of fear and crisis, all shaped my evolving convictions.
As if incredible hospitality and friendship were not grace enough, by the time our family faced the threats of death, when the Greek classed prayed for our firstborn as he struggled for every breath on a ventilator in a neonatal ICU, in the every-evening phone calls and the strengthening of the Eucharist, these communities celebrated with my husband and me while he battled cancer, in the laying on of hands and the thank-you notes from their children and the myriad of practical ministries they offered when I lost count of all the life-threatening illnesses assailing me … by that time, I became convinced that the boundaries meant to insulate me from pain and hurt only obstructed my care for others as well as my being healed by others’ care.
I now believe it is not the moments that bring us to tears that threaten pastors with variants of “compassion fatigue” and “caregiver burn-out.” Instead, it is the leaking roofs, the organizational maintenance tasks, the paperwork to be filed, the financial crises, the scheduling conflicts, the relationships gone awry … all those events and circumstances that make us feel so incompetent, so overwhelmed and so helpless. Grieving is not something from which we need to be protected or healed, but a way of loving, of remembering, of celebrating. And, it is something we must practice often if we are to do it well, for it is always “complicated.”
The dying are not “helpless.” God continues to call them to minister to others.
Another change in my thinking about dying and grief is that I no longer believe pastors are called to share in the helplessness of those who are dying and those who mourn for them. In fact, I no longer think that those who are dying actually are helpless; perpetuating the expectation of helplessness breeds a spiritually crippling kind of pity.
Prayer is a ministry to which we are all called, even (perhaps, especially) those of us who await our deaths. I recall visiting a woman with advanced breast cancer who was in a great deal of pain from a pathological fracture of her arm. Together, she, her nurse, her family and I worked out a plan for immobilizing her arm and adjusting her pain medication. I then excused myself, explaining that I had another urgent visit to make. “You have a patient dying right now?” she asked. “Please tell him I am praying for him. It seems to me that all of us waiting for the same ferry across the Jordan ought to be looking out for the safety of one another.” I relayed her message to the other patient, who grinned and “passed forward” her promise of prayer: “That reminds me that we have a mutual friend starting chemotherapy today. Please tell her I am praying that it will go well, with maximum effectiveness and minimal side effects.” If we are sincere in our convictions that God heeds our prayers, that God’s mind may be changed, that praying is a powerful activity and has cosmic consequences, then those who are dying and those who care for them still have important ministries to share.
The yearning to hear God’s call, to continue to do God’s will, to tell the Good News and to serve others is common among our clergy colleagues as we die and in the thoughts and prayers of other church leaders as well. For those saints who are convinced of God’s love for them, who do not fear for their salvation and who are confident that God is healing their lives, memories and relationships, hearing and answering God’s call in their present circumstances becomes both thanksgiving and profession of faith.
Columbia Theological Seminary’s president emeritus, Steve Hayner, wrote about this wonder, this need to discern God’s call and his awe that God continued to call him to minister in unexpected ways in his reflections on the CaringBridge website as he died of pancreatic cancer. (Those reflections, along with those of his wife, Sharol, have now been published as a book, “Joy in the Journey,” which is reviewed in this issue by Kristin Stroble.)
One of my most cherished memories is the instruction on preaching and the spiritual direction of one of my professors who recognized my needs and met them powerfully in the last hours of her life. Led by such examples, I no longer hesitate to ask my dying colleagues and other siblings in the faith for acts of ministry: for prayer, for advice, for messages of encouragement.
I have become much bolder in offering ministry. I understand my call to be more than presence, though presence is still of central importance. Now, I am more proactive, more available; I hesitate less often to do things when I am present with others and to do things outside my traditionally prescribed roles. I also anticipate what may be asked of me and prepare to do ministry with far more intentionality than I once did. I make notes about people’s favorite hymns, important birthdays and anniversaries; I keep a “tickler” file to remind me when to contact people; I compare the prices of various funeral services; I maintain half a dozen different bibliographies of writing I think will be helpful to others; I attend grief support groups — for my own healing and in order to share information about them with others. I now understand more fully that all of who I am has been called to ministry.
“Don’t get between Jesus and his people.”
These words of advice from a young patient provide the balance I need between simply being present and doing more — the cautionary insight which, I hope, prevents my good intentions from getting in the way of others who would answer their own calls. Memories shape and now limit what I do: the clergy spouse who gathered her family around her dying husband’s bed and began to recite Psalms, sing hymns and tell him the gospel until their children were able to join her in that last hour of ministry to him; the sons who cradled their father in their arms and sang the bedtime songs he used to sing to them; the anecdotes I would have expected to embarrass or anger a family, but which they cherished as insights they never had about their loved one. Family members, friends, and even kind strangers are frequently able to do ministry that is far more meaningful than what I have to offer. More and more often I realize my role is to wait and pray and remain available.
I have become a “high sacramentalist.”
There is so much doctrine about which I remain uncertain and confused — if not frankly doubtful (a state for which I am almost always very grateful). However, grief has taught me that I really believe what we say we do about the sacraments, about the ways and times when we are met by God, cleansed and nourished and strengthened. I make and take every opportunity to participate in Communion, for in spite of all my other doubts, I am absolutely certain those whom I miss most painfully are already at that Table when I taste of the feast they already enjoy in fullness.
Our Celtic Christian forebears envisioned the death of a believer as a moment when the distance between Heaven and earth thins, when we can hear the angels sing and we frolic for joy with the Church Triumphant, when the One who calls us “friends” and hosted seaside picnics in Galilee runs to embrace us and seat us at the Great Feast already in progress. It is an unspeakable privilege to be present in those moments, to witness the thinning and greet the angels, to be the church as we (in the words of one of my patients) “hand off a brother or sister to Jesus.” It is a comfort to remember them and to celebrate God’s goodness with their loved ones and a joy to join them in God’s presence.
Those are the times I understand that we who mourn are truly blessed.
MARILYN WASHBURN is a teaching elder in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and a family physician currently practicing in a hospice.