I was woefully unprepared the first time I was called to offer comfort at the bedside of a dying woman.
Over forty years ago, I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary on a journey to ordained ministry that I never imagined as a shy, unchurched introvert. Our training for ministry required hands-on experience, and I served one semester as a student chaplain in a nearby elder-care facility. During my first week, our supervisor had the day off. When a voice over the intercom announced, “Chaplain Room 209! Stat!” that meant me.
I hurried to the room and found an elderly woman curled up in bed as life slowly ebbed from her fragile frame. The woman’s daughter sat at the foot of the bed and a nurse hovered nearby. “Sit there,” she directed, pointing to the chair. I sat. And I froze.
I didn’t know what to do or where to begin.
Finally, the nurse said tersely, “Could you please offer a prayer for Mrs. Northrop and her daughter?” I could and I did, hesitant and brief, nothing profound or eloquent. I’m glad the nurse prompted me when she did because Mrs. Northrop died soon after, and my prayer, meager as it was, had both brought comfort and framed the moment as sacred. I learned that I had something holy to offer in a moment like that, and I resolved to be better prepared next time.
And I was.
The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), and we need to learn how to pray as well. It’s not only those in church leadership who have opportunities to pray with people in time of need. The truth is, we learn to pray by praying. Here are words of counsel that have helped me along the way.
First, second, and last: trust that God will bless your prayer, whether it be simple or eloquent, scriptural or improvised, smoothly delivered or spoken with uncertainty. The only requirement is that your prayer be genuine and from the heart — you can do that!
Be aware of the non-verbal cues you give and receive. Keep your attention on a person’s face rather than parts of the body that may be the focus of treatment. Sit close enough to hear but not so close as to make a person uncomfortable.
Listen. Allow space for silence, simply be present. Stay long enough but not too long. Illness and grief leave a person exhausted. Short prayers are enough. You don’t need to cover
every single thought, emotion, and possible outcome.
Honor the person’s power
Respect a person’s personal space. Privacy is limited when receiving medical care. Don’t sit on a person’s bed unless you are invited.
Ask if you may offer a prayer before you leave. While many people welcome prayer, for some it can be too personal or uncomfortable. You can pray for them later, on your own.
I am a hugger and a hand-holder, but not everyone is comfortable with physical contact. So, I ask first. “May I hug you?” “May I hold your hand while we pray?” When someone declines, honor their choice without judgment.
Include the person’s name in your prayer, and perhaps the names of the family as well. He may never have been prayed for by name before, and there is a simple, personal power in hearing your name. Remember Zacchaeus?
Scripture is a valuable resource for prayer. Carry a pocket-sized Bible or download Scripture on your phone. Ask, “Do you have a favorite Bible passage you’d like me to read?” If not, offer psalms such as 23, 121 or 139 as expressions of faith. Even psalms of lament or despair like 13 or 130 can prayerfully express our feelings to God. Highlight or write down verses to share.
Phrases from hymns or songs can be moving when included in prayer: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” (“Amazing Grace”).
I remember a woman whose Alzheimer’s was so advanced that she didn’t recognize her own husband. As I closed our visit with the Lord’s Prayer, she joined in a strong voice, the familiar verses so deeply embedded that the words flowed. What a wonderful gift! My husband has sung hymns with people with dementia who surprised him by singing along.
How do we offer hope when there seems to be none? When physical healing seems unlikely, we can pray for strength, courage, hope … or for God to join us “as we walk through the valley of the shadow.” We can also ask for God’s healing powers to be at work. As my mentor Joseph Rodgers put it: in the end, God heals us out of this world into the Divine Presence.
Pray in the moment … or plan ahead
Using your own words, however imperfect, will make your prayer a genuine and often moving conclusion to your visit. But if you’re not comfortable praying “off the cuff,” don’t. You can use prayers provided in resources such as The Book of Common Prayer or write your own ahead of time. There’s no shame in sharing a prayer from a notecard. Here’s an outline of a simple prayer:
Introduction — use a phrase for God that appeals to you:
Lord of all life
a word of gratitude:
we thank you for your faithfulness
you are the giver of every good gift
you are always there for us
a simple request, using the person’s name:
grant Sara your loving care
surround Jerome with your healing mercies
let your healing power be at work in Jay
bless Padma with courage, strength, and hope
guide Carlos with your wisdom
comfort Em in this time of loss
optional, a second request:
fill her with peace
grant him your strength
encourage them each day
optional, connect to family:
and bless her partner
and keep him close to Judy and the kids
or, if you do not know their names or whether there are any family:
and bless loved ones near and far
a simple closing:
in Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.
The more often you pray in person, the more comfortable you’ll become. Soon you’ll develop your own outline, rhythm, and phrasing — and you’ll likely become more aware that the Holy Spirit is with you both as you pray.
A closing thought
The Quakers have a simple, beautiful, and visual way of praying I have come to love: “I hold you in the Light.” I use this in my daily prayer time: “God, I hold Joanie in the Light.” I visualize a soft glow of starlight or morning dawn; I imagine the warmth and gentleness of that light as a representation of God’s presence; I see the person for whom I am praying bathed in that Light.
You can pray this in person, too, as you leave the side of someone with whom you have prayed. Make it a promise: “I hold you, Phil, in the Light.” And then do just that.
As I write this, I hold you, dear readers, in the Light.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)