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Showing up for each other

This was what I was trained for in seminary and clinical pastoral education, but I was young and inexperienced and my life had been blessedly free of tragedy. Despite my insecurity and doubts, I kept getting called to share space with the suffering. I prayed with people and read Scripture and listened a lot, but beyond that I doubted I had much to offer. Even as an experienced pastor, I’m still thrown into situations in which I feel completely unprepared and unqualified. 

Once, the family of a beloved older church member, Don, called me to come and help them at the hospital. Don had just come out of surgery. The surgery was successful, but while Don was in the operating room tragedy struck. His wife, Anne, suffered a stroke and died. The family was overwhelmed with grief and couldn’t figure out how to break this news to their father. So they sent me into Don’s hospital room. 

I remember Don smiling when I first walked in. He was happy to see me, but quickly picked up the tension in my face. His smile faded. The doctor stood while I pulled a seat up beside Don’s bed and gently took his hand, careful not to press on the IV needle inserted under his thin, veined skin. Don looked from me to the doctor, then back to me again. The doctor finally spoke, sharing the dreadful news in a halting, professional manner. I couldn’t say a word, my throat too choked with emotion. 

Don cried out, “No….” and his face contorted with pain. 

He wept. I wept. All I could do at that moment was sit there and hold his hand. It just didn’t feel like enough. 

But sometimes showing up is all that is needed. As Andrew Pomerville writes in this issue, and as I experienced working with colleges students myself, a ministry of presence is powerful with young people. They love it when you show up to their sporting event, theater performance or band concert to support them. I’ve come to accept that sometimes showing up is enough and sometimes it’s not, but it’s better to be not enough than not be there at all.

For me, the worst part of this pandemic year has been how the COVID-19 virus prevented us from showing up for each other in the midst of our suffering. Even though I desperately wanted to visit my parents in Florida, it wasn’t safe to travel, it wasn’t safe for me be in the same room as them and it wasn’t safe to hold them or hug them. The scenes televised across America of families holding vigil in parking lots, unable to visit their loved ones in the hospital; of people visiting outside nursing home windows; and of loved ones saying their last goodbyes through cellphone videos were horrific and heartbreaking. I’m praying hard for us to get this virus under control, praying none of us has to endure such isolated suffering again. But the past year has revealed how much showing up for each other matters. Being present for each other in our pain and suffering is a ministry that shouldn’t be dismissed. 

Like pastors, the caregivers’ role is fraught. Focused on a parent, child or loved one, caregivers are often plagued with doubt, insecurity and exhaustion. In this issue, we hear from a hospice chaplain called upon to care for his dying cousin; a pastor whose personal suffering is transformed into support for a parishioner; and a parent caring for a son with learning differences. Each situation is different, but each reveals the challenge caregivers face — the challenges some of you face right now.

When we are called upon to sit with the suffering, physically or virtually, we may not have the right words to say, we may not believe that we are doing enough or being enough. But we are there. Showing up for each other matters. By denying us of this simple, yet profound grace, COVID-19 has revealed the power of our presence.