"Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process."
That line from David Brooks' recent column "The Art of Presence" in the New York Times has lingered in my mind because this is what the people I work with do all the time.
Professional health care chaplains are trained to help people who are ill, their loved ones, and their stressed-out caregivers identify and draw upon whatever is their source of spiritual strength. These professionals are trained to listen to those in their time of crisis and also to hear what is unsaid. To me, this is also the art of presence.
I recall one man, a lawyer, who was facing his second bout with lymphoma. Getting ready for another round of chemotherapy, he waited with his wife for the doctor to arrive. He was frightened, terrified actually, but he did not want to burden his wife by revealing his fear. He knew she was also afraid and worried. A health care chaplain came to see him and in her own special way, let him know that she was there to be with him, to be present. The patient was relieved to have someone with whom he could share his fears.
A chaplain in a Veterans Administration hospital designed a program to help the medical and social services staff learn how to build relationships with servicemen and women who were suffering from PTSD. She calls her program spirituality and PTSD and leads groups of veterans in conversations. She has no agenda, just gets to know them so they talk about their families as well as their fears and depression. As a result others on the hospital staff have learned how to communicate with these wounded warriors.
An orthodox Jewish chaplain with degrees in sacred music as well as theology brings her love of music to her practice through informal singing together with patients. "It changes the air in the room," she says. For a dying patient who loved Yiddish music and was having trouble breathing, the chaplain sang some Yiddish songs and it seemed to calm her and regulate her breathing; she passed in peace.
A young boy with a terminal illness more than anything wanted to meet his hero, a baseball player from a team on the other side of the country. The hospital chaplain, through her own connections, made this happen and the boy met his hero in person before he died. The mother of a child undergoing treatment for cancer told me she would never forget that the chaplain "was there for us at a very difficult time."
A Muslim chaplain who grew up in the South sang church hymns with an elderly Baptist woman to soothe her spirit. He knew these hymns from the people he grew up with.
Health care chaplains are trained to be present for any person regardless of religion or beliefs. They don't care who the patients are or who they've been. They want to be with them where they are.
May you or a loved one never need the helping hand and voice of a health care chaplain in the hospital. But if you do, ask for one. They are masters of "the art of presence."