As always, God was all over the hospital the other night, and it’s a good thing because God was seriously needed there. It went like this. . . .
I get called to the ER to be with a woman whose 80-something mother lay dying, unconscious, and the daughter can’t bring herself to be in the room with mom. “I need help with that,” she tells me, weeping. Always helpful when someone tells me straight up that they need help–and more so when they tell me exactly what they need help with. I assure her that whatever she, the daughter, is feeling, is OK–and I’m sure it would be OK with mom. “I know–I’ve been taking care of her for eight years and I’ve done all I could,” she tells me.
She proceeds to tell me that mom’s other two children died, one in his early fifties. She tells me all about mom growing up in a rural Southern state where she will be taken for burial at the family plot. In fact, she tells me a lot of the family story. For someone in this kind of grief, there’s enormous relief in having someone to listen to you–in fact to encourage you–to tell your story. In terms of importance, getting the one in grief to tell their story ranks right up there with getting them to tell you exactly how he or she is feeling–sad or depressed? angry? dazed and confused? Whatever the one in grief is feeling, it’s an honest-to-God feeling and they’re entitled to feel it to the fullest — and to speak it — without fear of judgment. There’s enormous, healing power in being able to speak your darkest and most pain-filled feelings to someone without that fear of judgment, or without the listener cutting you off and trying to deny you whatever you’re feeling in your brokenness. Grief relief always comes down to honest feelings and being allowed to express and vent them, no matter how dark and scary they may seem at the time–that and being able to tell your story to someone you may not know from Adam.
When it comes right down to it, Christian faith is all about stories. See your Holy Bible for evidence. There you find the story of God which contains story after story after story after story of God in relationship with the whole of God’s creation. Telling one’s story to someone who’s genuinely interested and engaged in listening to the story–that can be a big dose of grief relief. People understood this a lot better than we do back in biblical times.
Eventually the daughter tells me she’s ready to go to mom’s room and asks if I can pray with them. I tell her that it so happens that praying is a big part of my job description.
No sooner than I’m done with this visit, I’m asked by an ER doctor to look in on the woman in the next room. Her 90-something husband is slowly but surely and steadily dying and, like the woman dying next door, did not want to be kept alive on life support, which would only get in the way of God taking them Home anyway. So I go in to be on death watch with this woman who tells me she and the dying patient have been married 16 years. Both lost their first spouses and then met at a mall.
She tells me the whole amusing story of that mall meeting.
“We got married in Vegas,” she tells me later, grinning.
“Very cool,” I say.
“We went back there on our 10th anniversary. We don’t gamble. We just like the shows.”
“Sure, I say. It’s a fun town.”
“We like the food too.”
“Great buffets in Vegas,” this reverend tells her knowingly.
She talks for an hour, telling me stories. Then we pray. Then I have to convince her to call some friends and neighbors to come be with her for this death vigil–all the sons and daughters she and her husband ever had are spread out all over the country and she has no family close by. We call the neighbors who call friends who all come to sit with her.
Then I head upstairs to ICU where a 20-something man lay dying.
Yes, he’s in his 20s.
It’s a case that’s had ICU stressed to the hilt all week. This one’s way too young and way too sick for someone so young. It’s a long story. And a sad one, as the young son has been extremely ill for almost three years and is nearing the end.
The family has many friends and relatives and friends from church around, all eating wings and pizza in the waiting room, but still, the dad is engaging me in conversation, telling me story after story after story about his life, his family, his son.
Eventually I’m called away to the ER, again, where a 6 month old baby who choked on a small bite of pasta her dad was feeding her that caused her heart to stop is brought in. She’s been revived–for the moment–but the pulse will remain almost undectable for the next three hours before she’s whisked away to Children’s Hospital by helicopter. In fact, the heart will beat for five minutes at a time, then stop again, a sign that it might be only the meds keeping the baby going and a baby, more so than an adult of course, can only take so many heavy meds to keep the heart pumping.
So I spend the next three, agonizing hours with the mother, who, by turns, bangs her head against the wall, curses at me and several other unsuspecting people in the ER hallways, drops to her knees and bargains with God (“I’ll do anything for you God if you’ll just let my baby live!!!”), curses at her husband a bit (he who appears to be in a zombie state the first hour), paces up and down a hallway screaming intermittently, asks me on occasion how God could do this to her and her baby (“I just bought a house for my baby!” she screams a lot), and generally keeps the stress level throughout the ER at high tide.
She even curses at a couple of cops who try to tell her she needs to calm down. I tell the cops to let her grieve a while and let her have her space and this will pass.
Of course, this kind of intense, high-level and noisy grief usually passes in 15 or 30 minutes. Not in this case. This mom spends two hours being a loud and disruptive force, and the best thing I can do, as long as she’s not physically hurting herself or anyone else, is to just stay close by her no matter how far she might go pacing at a fast, adrenalin-powered clip–no matter how much she might insult and curse me in her anger at God–and make sure I and everybody give her some space. The best I can do is try on occasion to guide her outside to the parking lot and never mind that she won’t stay put in any one place for long, indoors or out.
And by the way, lest anybody gets too judgmental here–if it were your 6-month-old baby whose heart had stopped multiple times and your baby were surrounded by a medical team for hours on end in an ER trauma room . . . Well. . . . Anybody who’s ever worked in a hospital has seen people yell and scream and curse God and everybody within shouting distance over far less.
Two hours into this three-hour ordeal, mom has calmed enough for me to tell her it’s time she listened to me. I tell her she’s got to calm down now and be strong for her baby. I can see her lighting up, as if she’s thinking, “Oh, yeah–I probably should do that now.” She just wasn’t ready to hear that till all that first wave of anger and confusion and fear of losing her baby was processed. So now I dig for her story–other children? how long have you and your husband been together?–and she calmly volunteers her story of her and her husband and their baby. In another hour the mom is calm enough to ride with the baby on their first-ever helicopter ride with a flight crew from Children’s Hospital. Dad and other relatives are calm enough to make the drive to Children’s.
It’s doubtful the baby lived through the night–and may not have made the helicopter ride with mom and the heroic crew from Children’s, and I can only hope and pray the baby’s OK. But it’s doubtful if I and anybody else in the ER will ever know if the baby lived. But the ER caregivers really don’t see much hope as they give goodbye hugs to mom. They tell me the baby had the barest hint of a pulse, just enough to hope and pray for a miracle. We all just did what we could–fulfilled all our missions and roles–and moved on to the next case(s) the way that people at hospitals do when they go back day after day and fulfill their missions and roles.
But there’s a story in this story of all these stories, from one shift at the hospital, about how God works in the midst of pain and suffering. Like all those people in the Bible, we all have our stories and feelings to share.