Let me give you some advice,” said Dr. Timothy Little. “Sometimes the only power a patient has left is the power to kick the chaplain out of the room.”
It was an odd piece of advice, especially coming from the man who trained me to be a hospital chaplain. Naturally, with my charm, I never thought this would happen to me — until it did.
Not long after his prediction, in the early ’90s, I became the chaplain at Houston Northwest Medical Center. One morning, I was called to the room of a woman who had undergone a routine hysterectomy and was about to be discharged.
Yet her last evening had been everything but routine. Her home had burned to the ground and now the social workers and I had assumed the proverbial role as “all king’s men” summoned to put her Humpty Dumpty world back together again.
After a brief introduction, I made a simple observation. “I understand you received some terrible news.”
Upon hearing those words, she erupted in loud sobs and shook her head at the understated truth.
At this point, you should know my wife often says I’m not happy unless I’m making people cry. This partially is true, because tears are an indication the truth is about to surface.
When folks want to deny their pain and suppress tears, they usually give “just the facts.” But as people hear permission to safely unfold their story without ridicule or critique, the tears become the stream that floats the story.
On this day, however, there was a very menacing son who was determined this story wasn’t going to float.
He immediately ordered me from the room, accusing me of “making” his mother cry.
“Maybe,” I suggested pointing to our care team, “we are the only ones willing to give your mother permission to cry.”
His mother nodded in agreement and ordered her son from the room.
During the next several minutes, the tears diminished in proportion to the problem shared. The social workers devised a plan on where the patient would spend the next few days, and we were able to begin the solution.
The son’s effort reflected what I see much of the time when people try to stop the tears of someone in grief.
We all do it. We try to stop the tears of others with a pat on the back or a quick hug. We mistake the symptom (tears) for the actual problem. This causes us to believe if we can dismiss the tears, we have begun the solution.
We try to stop the tears because, truthfully, the tears remind us of our own pain. I think that’s what was happening with this young man. Perhaps I should have asked, “If your mother stops crying, will you feel better?”
Being a comfort to people never is about symptom management. Sacred texts make it clear we can’t just hand people a tissue and say, “I wish you well; keep warm and well-fed.”
The only way to bring people comfort is to demonstrate your willingness to walk inside those tears where the real pain exists. And in doing so, you always will run the risk of being kicked out of a room, a place or a life. But I promise, it’s worth the risk.