This is a story almost thirty years old now; but I continue to remember and to tell it.
I was a student in my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, during the summer between my Junior and Middler years of seminary. That was a difficult summer, and a rewarding one, and both in many ways.
I was on call for the day. Late in the afternoon the pager went off. I was paged to one of the intensive care units to support a family after a patient’s death. I made my way to the unit down the back stairs so that I could speak with the nursing staff before meeting with the family. It turned out that the patient was the husband of a staff member, a unit clerk of long tenure. I prayed at the bedside for the departed, and then went to the waiting room to meet the family.
I walked into a waiting room, a room perhaps twenty feet by twelve. One wall had been painted with a mural. All the seating, a small couch flanked by side chairs, was spread along the opposite wall, the better, I suppose, to view the mural. And in those seats was the patient’s family, his wife flanked by children and children-in-law. I walked into the room, faced the wife, and introduced myself. She looked up and said in a flat, strained voice, “I know you.”
Her tone terrified me. I didn’t know how to interpret it. Was it “I know you and I’m relieved”? Was it “I know you and I want you to go away”? I was stunned, uncertain. I had no words. I wanted to flee. The best I could do was to stand at parade rest, my feet shoulder-width apart, my hands behind my back, and my back to the painted wall. I stood there, silent, stared at by the family, for at least three days.
Or perhaps it was only a few minutes. Soon another chaplain arrived, a second-year CPE resident who knew the wife well and had followed the patient’s illness. She settled down in the midst of the family, and said to me, “Why don’t you go into the unit and stay at the bedside? You can support family in there and I will support family out here.” I walked when I wanted to run; but in any case I was so very glad to be rescued! Between the two of us we cared for the family, and I managed to stumble silently through the family’s grief.
Several weeks later, the CPE resident came to me. “Mrs. So-and-so is back at work. You need to go see her.”
“Go see her?!?” I asked, incredulous. “I can’t go see her. I was helpless, useless, a failure! I certainly didn’t care for her then, and I can’t go see her now.”
The resident insisted. “You need to go see her.”
So, I girded up my loins, at least emotionally, and I went to her unit. She was at her desk, working, as I approached. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes,” she said, “I did want to see you. I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your presence the night my husband died. Just your being there meant so much to me.”
I was floored, metaphorically, and almost literally. I had little more sense what to say then than I had had the night of the death. This time I did manage to thank her, and to tell her I was glad I could help. She returned to her work, and I made my way back to my own unit, confused, amazed.
As I said, I have told this story for almost thirty years, and to this day I cannot tell it without reliving that sense of awe and wonder. I had not a word, not even a thought, to offer in that crisis, and yet I had demonstrated care – the care I wanted to offer, the care God had to offer through me, all by grace. In all the years I’ve been in this business I have seen again and again that in fact this is true: it is presence, first and foremost, that demonstrates the presence of God. Any technique beyond that is simply detail, nuance. It is the fact of compassion made incarnate, made solid and tangible in caring presence, even helpless presence, that shows the presence of Christ in the midst of suffering.
And so I continue to tell this story to CPE students, many of them at the beginning of their experience. “Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do. Be there for them. Be there for them, loving as best you can. And never underestimate the power of simple presence to show the love of God.”