Tag Archives: hospital

The Gift of My Presence

Loneliness is something every human being has to face, for it is the hunger for perfect union. Even happily married people know this loneliness, for we cannot penetrate another’s innermost being. Loneliness ultimately comes from not knowing that God loves us, for as St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
— Servant of God Catherine Doherty, Dearly Beloved (Volume 1)

In regular life one may feel lonely at times, and appreciate the company of friends. But I have never quite felt the enormity of the gift of human presence until recently, especially on the day I visited both my fiancé in prison and my friend in a psychiatric ward.

When visiting a prisoner, you cannot bring anything with you — no gifts, no cards or letters (mailed and examined, as in a convent or monastery), no food, no books. All you bring is yourself.

For an hour twice a week, family and friends can visit their loved ones in prison. This begins with non-contact visits, through a glass. After background checks have been cleared — usually after a month or more — we can have contact visits. The gift of human touch is never so appreciated as when it has been denied for awhile. My fiancé could barely contain his joy, saying, “I feel like running around the room in excitement!”

One of the first things in facing loneliness, especially that of old age, but any kind of loneliness, is to understand that Christ calls some people to share His loneliness. This calling is redemptive! For if we share in the loneliness of Christ we can also share in His redeeming of the world.
— Servant of God Catherine Doherty, Doubts, Loneliness, Rejection

Each time you visit, there is a chance you may not see the person you have come for. After being identified, you have to check that you have nothing prohibited on your person — no watches, no phones or tissues in your pockets, no bobby pins, no jewellery except wedding or engagement rings. A lady’s first contact visit with her son was almost cancelled when she realized she still had her watch on, under her sleeve.

Then the drug-detecting dog sniffs you; you have your shoes scanned; an officer examines your hair, your heels (not sure why — if someone wanted to hide anything in his socks, it would be between his toes, right?), your pockets, your ears for piercings, and your mouth (recently added to the litany of places to check for contraband). Then you step into a machine which checks your fingerprint (which regularly malfunctions), and on the other side an officer with a wand checks for drugs again. The other day a high school teacher was unable to have a contact visit with her son because the wand picked up something on her clothes.

Finally, you step through a series of doors into the visiting area. Then you have one precious hour to spend with the person who has been anticipating your visit all week. In this corporal or bodily act of mercy, you truly realize how humans are made for communion, especially through the physical presence of another. We can receive phone calls daily and letters weekly, but nothing compares to actually being with someone and being able to comfort them with a simple touch.

Prisoners are often moved from prison to prison, and some visitors sadly miss seeing their beloved. On two occasions I witnessed or heard of a visitor traveling from afar, only to find their loved one gone — and with the booking system, you often have to book visits a week ahead. I found a lady sobbing outside the reception area — she had driven an hour to see her husband, only to find that she had been mistakenly booked in for the prior visit and the bookings system did not allow her to enter for the current one. She also discovered that her husband was being moved to a prison much further away. With children to care for at home, she was overwhelmed at losing this precious hour, and completely brokenhearted.

Indeed, prison is hard on the families of the incarcerated. So is hospitalization. When I visited my friend, the other patients crowded around us, thirsting for human connection. From their manner of speech, I discerned that they had lived rough lives, and they probably didn’t receive many visitors. How many solitary people are out there in institutions, aching for a friendly voice? In prisons and in hospitals, chaplains bring the precious gift of their presence and the Real Presence, a selfless act which in turn acknowledges the inherent worth of each prisoner and patient which cannot be erased by sin, sickness or suffering.

Love is not abstract; it is a fire. It must spend itself in service. What you and I have to be is a flame, a lamp to our neighbor’s feet, a place where he can warm himself, where he can see the face of God.
— Servant of God Catherine Doherty, Restoration

Can you think of someone who may need your presence today? Find in him the Face of Christ, as he will find Christ in yours.

For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
— Matthew 25:35-36

Image: Saint Paul in Prison

Parents as Lay Ministers

One of the most horrifying things I’ve seen as a chaplain intern is a mother curled up in bed holding her dead teenage daughter. I’ve seen a half-dozen families with babies in the ER. When I come home from the hospital, the first thing I always do is hold my infant son.

So, what is a parent to do in my situation? Is it a detriment to my ministry if I see my boy in the face of every pediatric patient? Is it bad for me to sympathize with all parents, especially mothers? Do I risk putting families above all other patients in my priorities? Do I risk not being able to see clearly due to my own biases? Here are a few of my thoughts on the situation:

How to treat parents

As part of my internship, I had bi-weekly supervisory meetings with the head of the Spiritual Care Dept. Once, we reflected on my work with the family of a severely injured child. I admitted to my supervisor that as I went to meet with the family, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I thought, “What would I be thinking or feeling if I were them? What would be most helpful for me if I were them? What would be least helpful?”

I think that last question is the most important one for a parent/minister to ask. Every person and every situation is different. The parents of this patient have their own stories and backgrounds. You can’t use your worldview to judge theirs. There may be emotions felt and expressed that you may never understand. They may need something that you’d never think of. But, at the end of the day, we’re all human and while you can’t use yourself as a gauge on what to do, you can usually use yourself as a gauge for what not to do. Although there are some people who are more sensitive than others, generally speaking we’re all offended and hurt by the same kind of things.

For example: Some people are huggers, some people are not, but most people would agree that laughing while someone else is crying is extremely insensitive.

Now is not the time or the place to swap dirty diaper stories or to talk about your own children and parenting adventures. The topic at hand is the sick child and the goal is to help the parents in any way you can, period.

How does being a parent affect my priorities

Clearly, you cannot put parents first, above all of the other people vying for your time and attention. You will want to and it’s only natural to want to. As a parent/minister, you can most sympathize with the parents and you have deep concern for any and all sick children. But that doesn’t mean that you shirk your responsibilities to the rest of the hospital.

Priorities need to be set regardless of how well you can relate to the patient and family. My priorities tend to be set as follows:

1) Those who clearly need spiritual assistance come first. (i.e. those who directly request a chaplain)
2) Life threatening injuries and illnesses
3) Provocative cases (for example, suicidal patients or cases in which there is more than one patient from the same family)
4) Everybody else

Notice that my priorities say nothing about the age of the patient (although the age of the patient could be a factor in any of these) nor does it say anything about the religious affiliation or lack thereof of the patient. Most of my patients are not religiously affiliated. I think that might be a product of the overall culture.

Being able to see clearly

I have to admit that when I see a child injured or sick, I am taken back. But the trick for me is to not let that paralyze me from doing my job. For some reason, in our culture, we find it hard to believe that young people can get injured or sick. We associate youth with health. Regardless if you are a parent or not, seeing a child unconscious on a hospital bed does lead to some cognitive dissonance. When you are a parent, there is an added layer of seeing your own kid in the face of the kid who is hospitalized. It’s natural. It’s okay to see your kid in the sick kid and to have some of that parental instinct come up. Of course it’s going to happen because being a parent changes everything!

You can’t let it get in the way of your work though. You have to funnel it to give you energy to help the family, not to start crying. You don’t need to make everyone else’s job harder by being the chaplain who can’t keep their stuff together. The patients don’t need that and you’re just making yourself look unprofessional. At the end of the day, by all means, cry! You need to get it all out but, don’t do it in the moment in front of the family.

Seeing your work through the eyes of a parent can also be a blessing. Your identity as a parent gives you just one more thing in common with our Father in heaven: You know what unconditional love feels like. You know how much God loves every single person in that hospital. So, your identity gives new meaning to your work as you know part of your job as God’s representative is to reflect that love to everyone. “What am I to do?” you ask. You are to do what you think God-who-is-Love would do.

And I think that is what it all boils down to. Of course your identity as a parent is going to affect how you minister. You can’t stifle all of that nor would you want to. But you can’t let it get in the way of your job. Your job at the moment is to care for all patients and their families. But, again, being a parent kind of gives you an inside track into understanding the mind of God. As it says:

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. – Isaiah 49:15

God loves everyone more than you love your own child. Doesn’t that blow your mind?

This post was initially published on the author’s own blog.