Stories of Comfort and Hope

What Do the Tears Mean?

An elderly woman went into cardiac arrest on one of our patient floors and the staff were not able to revive her.  The family asked for a chaplain to come and be with them and I was sent to the floor in response to their request.  As I sat in a respite room with a daughter, a granddaughter, and a brother of the deceased lady the daughter and granddaughter were crying.  Before I could engage in some conversation with the family one of the doctors on the team came in.  She took the hands of the daughter in her hands and she said, “Your mother did not suffer.  She went quickly.  You don’t have to worry that she went through a lot of pain.  If there is anything else that we can do to help you let us know.”  Then the doctor got up and left the room.

I sat there for a moment and then I began to visit with the family members.  The daughter told me that she had just flown in to Milwaukee this very morning.  She said, “I called my mother from the airport in Atlanta where I was changing planes.  She told me not to worry.  I should take my time and not hurry.  She told me she loved me.  When I finally got here to the hospital I was fifteen minutes too late to see her.  She was already gone.”

The granddaughter told me that she lived in Madison.  She was going to school.  She was a very busy young lady with all of her studies and social activities that she had going on.  But she cried as she thought about her grandmother and she said, “I wish I would have spent more time with her.  She was such a wonderful woman.  She was so kind and wise and I could have learned so many things from her if I could have been with her more.”

The brother wasn’t shedding any tears but he talked about a gathering the two of them had been to in the past month  and how good it had been for the two of them to be at this gathering and how much fun they had together at that event.

As I heard these words it struck me how important it is to allow people to say what is on their hearts so we know what their tears mean.  The doctor assumed that the family was upset at the thought that their loved one might have suffered pain in her last moments and she wanted to assure them that this was not the case.  What the daughter’s words told me was that she was crying about the inability to have one more conversation with her mother.  She wanted to be able to tell her mother one more time how much she loved her.  She wanted to hear one more time how much her mother loved her.  Her tears were her expression of her regret and her pain of experiencing that reality that death separates us from our loved ones.

Her granddaughter’s words told me that her tears were a recognition that she could have chosen to see her grandmother more frequently if she had rearranged her priorities.  She was sorry she hadn’t put seeing her grandmother higher on her list of things to do.  She was learning a life lesson that we can’t always assume that grandma will always be there when we want to go to see her.

So when you see someone in tears and your first response is to say something that will make them feel better and help them stop crying, the first thing you want to do is to stop yourself.  Stop yourself from thinking you know why this person is crying because you may have no clue why they are crying.  Stop yourself from thinking your job is to make them stop crying.  Stop yourself from thinking you need to fix this and make it all better.  Enter into the space where the tears are being shed.  Allow time for the tears to flow and then for the words to flow that will come after the tears cease.  Then you will know why that person is crying.  Allow them time to express their regrets and their guilt and their anger at themselves and then help them to see that they didn’t only make some mistakes, they also had a wonderful relationship with this person.  They were blessed by this person and they were a blessing to this person so their regrets can be tempered by joy as well as sorrow.

I want to end this post by saying that I recently attended a workshop on the subject of confidentiality and I have come to the conclusion I should be careful in sharing stories of patients that I meet.  Even though I haven’t revealed names there is still the possibility that someone might be able to figure out whom I’m talking about.  Therefore I am going to stop sharing stories in the interest of protecting  people’s privacy.  I may share some thoughts on occasion when confidentiality is not an issue.  If you, my readers, have some ideas please let me know of how we might proceed.  If you have questions about life that you are pondering that we might ponder together I would be happy to respond to those so let’s see where you want to go from here.  In the meantime thank you for reading my blogs.  I hope you gained some helpful things from reading them.


Going Off On a Tangent

Ever have one of those conversations where the person you are talking to goes off on a tangent?  All of a sudden you are way off the subject and you don’t know how it happened and you don’t know how to get back to the subject and you begin to wonder how many more tangents are there and will this conversation ever end.  Doesn’t it just drive you crazy sometimes?

But sometimes going off on a tangent reveals a story that needs to be told and that needs to be listened to.  This is what happened to me the other day as I sat and talked with a cancer patient.  I had asked him how things were going with his recovery from his bone marrow transplant and he had asked me how my weekend had gone.  I was telling him how we had celebrated my daughter’s fiftieth birthday party and how that had gotten me to thinking about the passage of time and of my own age.  The patient then talked about birthdays he had that had made him think about time.  He said, “My forty-seventh birthday was one that made me think because my dad died when he was forty-six and I thought to myself I’ve lived longer than my dad.”

“What happened that your dad died at forty-six?” I said.  He then went on to tell me that his dad had been diagnosed with a very rare from of cancer.  He had been off work for several months and had suffered a lot from chemo therapy and radiation treatments.  After all this his dad was going to go back to work in early November.  The weekend before he went back to work the family went to a relative’s wedding.  The patient’s father and mother and aunt and uncle and some siblings were all in the car for a total of eight people.  At a crossroads a drunk driver blew a stop sign and broadsided the car.  The patient’s father was thrown from the car and the car landed on top of him and crushed him to death.  The patient’s mother and the patient were severely injured and were fortunate to survive their injuries.

Even though this event had happened over forty years ago the patient still was telling the story as if it had happened yesterday.  The pain, the loss, the trauma, the questions that defied easy answers were still evident in the tone of his voice and the emotions that played across his face.

One of the things that struck me in his story was how his father had done so well in his cancer treatments that he could go back to work only to die in this car accident.  What could this chain of events mean?  As I raised this question the patient said, ” I know.  Wasn’t that crazy?” He then told me how a chaplain had visited him in the hospital after the accident and told him that it was a blessing his father had died in the car accident before he had to die of cancer.  The patient replied to the chaplain, “Bullshit!!”  And he said to me, “I still don’t know why this happened and I don’t know if I ever will and I’m OK with that.”

The other thing that struck me about his story was that it had a profound effect on his life.  It was one of those experiences that in many ways had defined him and shaped his thinking and his living.  The patient agreed that this was indeed true for him.  He said, ” I have never forgotten how precious life is and and I have always tried to do things that would have a significant impact on other people.”

So I left this patient’s room not frustrated that we had gotten off on a tangent but deeply moved that I had been able to be present with someone who had an old wound that needed to be examined and tended to.

To all of you reading this I encourage you to let some of your conversations go off on tangents as well.  You never know what hurts people are carrying that need a listening ear and a caring heart to provide some necessary healing.


Treasures in the Attic

When I was little, my sister and I liked to go into the crawl space which was the attic in our house.  We found many treasures such as my father’s violin which we broke  because we didn’t know how to handle it with the care it deserved.  Even though my father was unhappy with our snooping and reckless behavior we couldn’t stop ourselves from going back to the crawl space to see what else was hiding there waiting to be discovered.

Attics have always been fascinating places filled with everything from old toys, old furniture, old keepsakes to letters and mementos.  A couple of weeks ago my wife, Jean, decided it was time to pull some boxes out of our attic and start sorting through what was in them to see if there was anything worth keeping in those boxes.

As I sat in the living room while she sat in the kitchen sorting through the boxes I heard her bursting into laughter as she read a humorous letter from one of her children or one of our friends.  Soon she was bringing those letters into the living room so I could read them too.

And then it dawned on me that she had done a most wonderful thing.  As I read old Christmas letters it became a timeline of our children growing up, our parents growing old and dying, our lives changing as we moved from parish ministry to chaplain ministry in a hospital setting.  As I reread old articles I had written for our Institutional Ministries newsletter I called to mind people I had forgotten who had touched me deeply at the time I had visited them.

As I looked at these materials with Jean it struck me how much has happened in our lives in the years we have been together.  In our family and in our extended families, in our work and in our experiences with so many different kinds of people, we have been blessed in countless ways.  I had forgotten many of those blessings until Jean and I once again looked at the cards and letters and mementos and realized we were holding precious treasures in our hands.

I remember Jerry Seinfeld saying to a car rental agent in one of his programs, “You know how to take a reservation but you don’t know how to hold a reservation.”  I think we know how to save letters and papers and mementos we just don’t know how to find the time to drag out the boxes and find the treasures that are there ready to warm our hearts and revive our spirits when life gets us down.

Thank you Jean, for digging out our treasures.  Follow Jean’s example all of you with attics full of boxes.  May you find many good treasures of how you have been blessed by people and by opportunities to be a blessing to others.  May we never forget that our lives are made up of thousands of moments and blessings that can create a river as broad and deep as the Mississippi.