A mother is crying, wracked with sobs, grieving as she cuddles her dying daughter.
No one can help. Not even the baby’s father. She has come to that place where she is alone with the Divine – only her grief between them.
During the course of my career as a pediatric hospital chaplain, I have been honored to be present many times when that Holy Place appears. I’m not the only one. Often there are others in the room. But most do not understand.
Why do I say this? Their words and actions betray them. When others on the team prod the chaplain to “say something” (words of comfort) or “do something” (pray, anoint, baptize, etc), I wonder – do they see it? No. Do they sense it? Maybe. Probably. But they don’t know what it is or what to make of it. Neither did I the first time.
This time it happened again. That Holy Place – the intersection of human grief and the Divine – had arrived in the room like a portal into another dimension.
It doesn’t always happen. But when it does the Divine touches a grief-stricken heart.
Others are not always present when this holy meeting takes place. Sometimes it occurs in an ambulance, in the back seat of a police car, at a crime scene, in a bedroom, on the street or maybe even in a cab…anywhere a heart is grieving.
But sometimes others are present. In the ICU…or the NICU…or the ED.
Though her daughter had special needs and this mom knew that she would one day die as a result of these special needs, mom was not prepared for it to happen today.
Sure, all of the spiritual prep had been done. But can anything ever prepare a parent for this?
“I want to be with her,” cries the child’s mom.
This is not an indication of suicidal ideation. It’s the expression of a grieving heart.
In using these words we learn that mom knows what has not yet been affirmed by the medical team. Her child has died.
There is nothing more to say even though the eyes of all the other team members are looking to you, the chaplain, to step in and say or do something to help.
They silently mouth their thoughts or gesture about what they think you might do:
Hands folded in a prayerful clasp along with a nod of the head in a direction that leads from you to the crying mother while their lips move saying “pray with her.”
Mouths forming the words “baptism” with a shrug or a questioning tilt of the head as they “ask” if that is something you, the chaplain should offer at that moment.
I wonder if they ever read my notes in the chart?
But I know the hearts of this staff. These gestures are simply the expression of their helplessness in not knowing what to do, but wanting to do something to assuage the grieving mother’s pain.
Yet this is not a time for words. There are no words that will help. This is not a time for rituals. There are no rituals that will help other than raising the dead. What can anyone say or do that could possibly ease the pain of her grief? This mommy’s beloved daughter has just died.
This is when “doing the work” of a chaplain is replaced by “being” a chaplain – being that which some are “called” to be. The time for clinical work is past. The time for “being” is here. To me, in this circumstance the ministry of presence is nowhere else more obviously needed.
When the Holy Place arrives most people sense it. They have an idea that something is up but don’t understand what “it” is. Many of the team paid only lip-service to spiritual things throughout the entire time of serving this family. But when the moment turns on the spiritual pivot of the presence of the Divine, their understanding of what is or isn’t spiritual care is unmasked as powerless.
Strong words? Yes. But true.
Don’t misunderstand. Everyone is powerless in this circumstance. Even the chaplain.
Understanding what’s going on does not empower anyone in that particular moment. This isn’t the place for medicine, or counseling or religion. This is the place of relationship.
Mom is in THAT place – the place where the Divine has entered the circumstance and has touched her grieving heart. The Divine is both present & gentle.
I learn much about the ministry of presence in these moments.
This is a Holy Place. Holy ground. And it is for mom alone. Anyone else would be an intruder. To step into that place, no matter how well-meaning, would be a violation of that which is holy.
The particular family’s religion is Christianity. They understand what their holy book, the Bible, says about physical death.
“we are willing to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” [2Cor 5:8]
But spiritual truth does not assuage grief. Even with the peace found within those truths, that Holy Place where the Divine has just arrived is deep in mom’s heart. It is too deep a place for cognition to reach. It does not rise to a more visible level. It is where her grief is rooted – that place where a mother’s unchangeable & unconditional love resides. It is the foundation of this woman – and grief has overwhelmed that space.
Until now. The Divine has arrived.
As Christians this family believes that death is the ultimate healing. But everything in this present circumstance, in their bodies – yea, in the whole world – screams just the opposite.
In this world we often see physical death but rarely see spiritual life. This dichotomy underscores this grieving mom’s struggle as she does her best to “walk by faith and not by sight” [2Cor 5:7].
What will she do?
Not everyone who enters this Holy Place reacts in the same way.
Not everyone accepts the invitation extended by the Divine when He arrives.
When face-to-Face in that place, some – most – surrender to the truth their hearts already know. They know because the Divine has already been at work preparing them for this moment.
But others continue to fight against it, allowing the unmitigated intensity of their raw emotions to suppress and try to ignore what the Divine has already spoken to their hearts.
Yet He does not leave alone even those who try to ignore Him in the abyss of their grief. He shows up to walk with them through the darkness. But they do not reach out to the only One Who can touch a grief-stricken heart. They choose rather to hold onto that which the Divine has already said shall not be.
Though help is freely offered, they have chosen not to accept.
And so the moment passes. The door closes on that Holy Place.
One reaction is not more “right” than the other.
Yet the ability of one heart to receive heavenly peace is far greater than the other.
Then the inevitable happens – the child has been pronounced dead. Regardless of whether or not the grieving parent was receptive at the moment when the Divine touched his/her heart, every one is for a moment the same.
– overwhelming grief
– body wracked with uncontrollable sobs
– expressions of love and regret
All of these & more…and all are “normal” because grief has no format.
Hours later I weep silently in my office. It has been a long, long week.