If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you would know that the crew often finds themselves in a place “where no man has gone before.” When that happens, their instruments usually don’t work.
As much as they try to recalibrate everything they keep losing power to the shields. The same energy that is messing with the instruments is also causing the crew to disappear and parallel universes to crash, smash and clash. Everything is out of whack.
I think people experience similar confusion as they hear a doctor tell them that their case inoperable. Their world contorts and they’re hit with spiritual vertigo.
Sometimes, I’m invited into that contorted world by a simple phone call. On this particular day, the call came from a nurse.
“Chaplain, we have a patient who’s requesting that you come and pray with her. Her doctor has just told her that she has more tumors and there is nothing more to be done.”
After a quick briefing at the nurses station, I entered the room to introduce myself.
“I understand you’ve gotten some unimaginable news today,” I admitted.
Even the word “unimaginable” seemed like an understatement. She was a 33-year-old woman who had been expecting great news from recent medical tests.
But instead of hearing that her cancer was in remission and that her three-year tour of duty in cancer’s twilight zone had reached its conclusion, she heard her doctor say, “You have a new tumor and it’s inoperable.
“I’m trying to be strong,” she told me, “but I just can’t stop crying.”
Shaking my head, I wondered aloud whether I’d be able to stop if I had just heard my doctor tell me I had inoperable cancer. “Is there a reason you have to stop?”
“Yes, I have to be strong for my mother. I’m all she has. She’s been so strong since I got sick. She’s my rock. It would destroy her to see my cry so much.”
This is something I often hear from patients who have a certain expectation of what “strong” is supposed to look like. These folks usually find tears to be shaming, embarrassing, or weak. I suppose tears can sometimes indicate such things, but I’ve also seen great strength and courage in tears.
“Holding back tears takes up a great deal of shielding energy,” I said still thinking in Star Trek terms. “Maybe that’s energy you might better use talking about your relationship, your life, and even your upcoming death.”
“If both of you are being “strong” so as not to make the other cry, you’re stuck in an endless dry circle. Sounds like you’ve sentenced your mother to a kind of solitary – solitary crying.
“You know she’s going to cry when you’re gone. Have you ever thought maybe she’d like to cry with you? Maybe she’s waiting for your permission to cry?”
“Mom’s not cried since this whole thing began,” she admitted.
“Or maybe you’ve not seen her cry,” I speculated. “My guess is losing her only child has got to be devastating and maybe she’d like the opportunity to express that.”
I told her that the desire to express grief is something that her mother and God had in common. “Surely God must have cried when his only son was killed,” I said.
She looked at me quizzically.
“Doesn’t the Bible teach that at the crucifixion, the earth went dark for three hours? I think your mom’s world must be looking pretty dark.”
At that remark, her tears began to fall like water leaking from a paper sack.
My wife often tells me that I’m usually not satisfied at the end of a day’s work if I haven’t made someone cry.
To which I always correct her by saying, “helped someone to cry’ – ‘helped’- not ‘made them cry!'”
Unfortunately, this woman was never cured, but I’d like to think that she and her mother experienced some healing from the holy water of tears that drop from our eyes and renew the dry places inside us.
Shedding tears in the presence of a loved one shows trust in them and their love for you. To share tears with another person is an act of supreme compassion. In holding back the tears, we hold back our truth — and we hold back ourselves.
And when faced with our mortality, “ourselves” is ultimately all we have to share with each other.