Sunday, April 02, 2006

Friday's Overnight

I wanted to post at several points during my shift on Friday, but there never was a proper window of time allowing me to do so. Indeed, although I was not wholly occupied with immediate patient needs, I had to be at the ready to spend time with a family whose 1-day old son was/is desperately ill.

There is a great irony in that I wrote how my stance when being present to one mired in suffering strives to be a stance of empathic listening. As the night crawled forward, I heard the plaintive cries of a mother shouting into the whirlwind of suffering and doubt, "Why? Why my baby? WHY? WHY? WHY?" Every fiber of my being strained to find an answer to why her full-term baby languished, his body wracked by a bacterial infection that ravaged his lungs. I wanted nothing more to comfort this young mother, to encourage the young resident who called upon all her skills to regulate the baby's blood pressure and increased the level of oxygen in his blood. I wanted so say something, to fill that void, and yet I took my own advice and stood mute. I prayed, I listened, I held the mother as her body quivered with heaving sobs, and I said nothing.

Fortunately, the baby's blood pressure was stabilized at 6:30 am and I was asked to baptize him. As I did in January, I welcomed this child into the community of Christian believers. And as I stood to the side to fill out the Baptismal certificate, I asked one of the veteran RN's what she said to comfort patients when they searched desperately for answers for their "why" questions. Her gaze penetrated deep into my heart when she said, "Nothing. I say nothing. Sometimes I say 'I don't know' but, more often than not, I say nothing." She then thanked me for not offering empty platitudes to the mother, saying that she appreciated having the "silent presence" of the chaplain rather than someone who tried to offer hollow words to comfort that which could not be assuaged.

I know Mary Ellen English (Shot out to the mother of my music students!) is a frequent reader of this blog. She often writes lovely emails in response to my posts, emails that teach me so much of what kind of service pastoral ministers do provide. I hope that she's not mortified by my mentioning her here, but I would like to solicit from her and from my readers - particularly doctors and nurses - what their thoughts are on the issue. What has helped in crisis situations? What has not helped? What do you see as being of the greatest assistance both to the medical staff and to the family?

If nothing else, this might accomplish something of a dialogue as well as sharing the enormous wisdom your experience has generated.

On another front, I was correct in my assumption that, on Wednesday, the patient would die. I was able to visit her and her family early in the afternoon. Her eyes were vacant and rolled back and her voice was forced. Each inhaled breath rattled in her chest and, on each exhale, a stomach-turning gurgling sound was made, not unlike the sound little kids make when the slurp the last bit of soda from the bottom of a cup. I prayed with them and said goodbye to the patient and, two hours later, I was paged back to the room to pray with them as she slipped away.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ryan, Well this is a good question.Over the past 20 years, I have had the very precious opportunity to be with familys who were loosing thier loved one. This to me, just as in birth is a very blessed time. It is a time for looking deep into your own soul, and asking for our Lord to intervene as only He knows how. I too very often just stand there with the family and pray, either silently or with the family, holding the hand of the dying or their family. Often the mere presence of just being there with them is enough. I agree with the nurse you spoke with regarding empty platitudes. Just saying I am sorry is enough. The family just wants to be listend to and be heard, not given advice or reasons for why death is coming to thier family member. Thank you agian for bringing me back to the essence of nursing, caring, compassion, empathy.
Aunt Cheryl

Joe said...


1- You are doing the Lord's work. May He bless the work of your hands and spirit. Whenever things get you a bit, um, down...remember you are in the prayers of more people than you can imagine.

2- The only suggestions I have aren't even mine. My wife, when she was a RN, used to say that there was nothing you could verbalize that would adequately meet that level of suffering. The best you could do is be a beacon of empathy and let those suffering (in the flesh or not) that you cared and you felt--if to a naturally lesser degree--what they felt.

The second suggestion comes from my friend L. (pray for him as he discerns whether he is being called to the priesthood) from when he was in the hospital. If I remember it correctly, he was recovering from some "medium" surgery and in the course of this, he was talking to an elderly man in the next bed. The family had been given the "we think this is it" call but hadn't yet arrived. When they did, the curtain was drawn to give them some privacy. For some reason, my friend's mind was drawn to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for his wardmate. At some point during his praying, the elderly gentleman died.

Later on, he overheard the nurses commenting on the unusually peaceful way in which the man had died.

That's all I got. Well, that and a reminder you are in my prayers.



Anonymous said...

I'm a pediaric nurse and a university professor. I have cared for dying children and their families during my rather long career. In my experience, caring deeply is expressed best by being present, truly present, to the depth and breadth of the suffering of all. There are no prescriptions, no set words or actions; it is a healing presence that lends the child and family courage and love and even hope. It is not abandoning them, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. It is not saying in words that this suffering will end, because it about now. But it is knowing deep in your heart that God's love will prevail, and wrapping your arms--figuratively and literally--around the child and family, and letting them lean into that trust and love. It is not about techniques, it is about being centered in God's love and allowing that love to be accessed at the times and in the ways they need. So, Ryan, you have everything you need already, to be all they need, right now.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes silence, and presence are the loudest gifts that can be given---as a nurse--it is difficult and humbling to be in the presence of death--the journey is loney and frightening--even IF the room is full--especially for those left watching and wondering--I tend to take cues from the family--sometimes it is very private for them--so I stand back--if they pray--I pray with them--if they cry--I cry with them--letting go is so very hard---

Anonymous said...

I don't know that I have any special things to say other than I'm sorry for your loss or that things have turned out this way or that I wish we were meeting under different circumstances, something to acknowledge what a family is going through. Being able to meet the physical needs of the patient through care and touch brings comfort. Our responses are guided by the needs of the family/pt. Listening, praying with them, shedding tears with them, holding their hand. I'm always thankful when a family wants pastoral care because the guidance through words of prayer are so helpful in meeting the spiritual needs. In our birthing center, like most I think, we provide the family with a memory box for a lost child. Our volunteers knit beautiful hats and blankets. We take pictures-it's up to the family if they want to develop, but they are there for a later time, momentos like a seashell provided for the baptismal water, an angel pin, the blessing or baptismal certificate or anything that would later give the family something to hold on to if they wanted to go back to it. We call their little one by name and encourage the family to hold,touch, and talk to their infant. Giving them time alone is important too. A lot can be said in silence. You already know what to do Ryan, you are able to put yourself in anothers shoes, comprehend, grasp, and express situations so beautifully. You have the gift of feeling for others with your whole heart and such energy...I'm really thankful you share your experiences through journaling...I'm learning so much from you.
Mary Ellen

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