Many pastors, especially of the mainline and Catholic varieties, are required as part of their training to do a brief internship at a hospital serving as a chaplain to the sick and dying. Oh how I wish I had read the blog post by Catherine Woodiwess and the accompanying op-ed by David Brooks that appeared in The NY Times before I stumbled through my own hospital rotation a few years back! It would have saved me (and more importantly the patients I visited) a good deal of unnecessary grief.
Woodiwess offers a few bullet-point reflections on her own trauma and the things she learned. A couple of salient take-ways Brooks summarizes:
Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy…
Don’t compare, ever. Don’t say, “I understand what it’s like to lose a child. My dog died, and that was hard, too.” Even if the comparison seems more germane, don’t make it. Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing. “From the inside,” Catherine writes, comparisons “sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”
Do bring soup. The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as eloquence. When Mary was living with Catherine during her recovery, some young friend noticed she didn’t have a bathmat. He went to Target and got a bathmat. Mary says she will never forget that.
Do not say “you’ll get over it.” “There is no such thing as ‘getting over it,’” Catherine writes, “A major disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no ‘back to the old me.’”…
Don’t say it’s all for the best or try to make sense out of what has happened. Catherine and her parents speak with astonishing gentleness and quiet thoughtfulness, but it’s pretty obvious that these tragedies have stripped away their tolerance for pretense and unrooted optimism. Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.
Much of this may seem like obvious or standard fare for walking with someone in their suffering – especially for those of us who have had some pretty awful pastoral care in our time of need. Woodiwess speaks repeatedly of the “presence” of those around her – how much it helped that people were simply there. But what Brooks aptly notes is that this presence is rarely, if ever, one that is aided by the speech of the console-er. When the world goes to hell, the last thing one needs is “a word” from the pastor. A cup of soup? Absolutely! A book on “why bad things happen…’? Not so much.
For many people – especially for pastors highly trained in preaching and teaching – this is incredibly disarming. It feels like resignation or irresponsibility not to say anything to the person in the midst of trauma. At best, we want to help. But so often “help” is just another word for “control” and a defense mechanism for feeling uncomfortable with another’s grief. Perhaps some might even think that a failure to talk about Jesus is un-Christian. And so we assault the grieving with misguided theological platitudes, congratulating ourselves that we’ve done our job.
But theologically speaking, the Incarnation is not simply about what Jesus said, however great those words might be. It is also, if not primarily, about what Jesus did – being with his wayward, suffering people. Jesus did not solve the plight of humanity by fiat, but by descending from heaven to suffer with us, and therefore for us, to the point of death.
And so Grace for sufferers is not always what one says, but what one does: the gift of oneself for the other. As Tim Kreider writes, “just showing up turns out to be one of the kindest, most selfless things you can do for someone”. Grace for the traumatized is not a matter of words, but the gift of time, the gift of sympathetic listening, and the gift of a much-needed bathmat.