This is my 12th year of working as a chaplain in Melbourne’s public hospital system; mainly at The Austin/Royal Talbot and The Northern Hospitals, but there have also been a few months spent at The Royal Melbourne in Palliative Care and at The Royal Children’s Hospital.
The biggest thing I have learnt is to listen more and talk less!
Nothing takes the place of ‘being there’ for someone. We may not know what to say (and probably should say very little), but our presence with them speaks louder than words. As Doug Manning says in his book ‘The Gift of Significance’, “People in pain of any sort need us to Hang around, Hug them, and Hush.” In these times of Covid19, hugging may be restricted, but perhaps, with their permission and after using hand hygiene, a touch or holding a hand may be enough?
Also, as seen in the “Empowered” videos we are watching as part of our Growth Group studies this year, Becky tells us in Session 4, that we need to “Listen, Understand and Care – then Speak”.
If we ourselves tend to talk too much, pray before we leave home, that God will guard our mouths and that we will think before we open them.
People we are with can tell if we’re just pretending to be interested in what is happening for them.
Let people know that we care for them. Remember we need to be real, genuine and truthful in what we say. There is no need to say how wonderful they look when they don’t. Endeavour to say encouraging words and not use false flattery.
Always have empathy with and keep safe the private life and shared insights of the other person, considering it a privilege when someone shares with you. Thank them for it.
To be understood and accepted by another person is a great gift we can give. That is one reason why God’s acceptance and understanding of us all is so wonderful! If we can show some of that grace to others, we can demonstrate God’s love for them. As in Galatians 6:2, the Bible speaks of ‘the comforter’ and about bearing one another’s burdens, and when we do that, we fulfill the law of Christ.
As the Deacons demonstrate, practical help is also important – such as a meal, shopping, mowing the lawns, reading the newspaper, a book or the Bible to them. Most of us can do one of these.
We all carry our own ‘baggage’; which could be our own history of culture, family, life experiences, and beliefs. Yet, over time, as well as in my personal life experiences, I have found that whatever the circumstances, family background, culture, faith or financial situation, people basically have the same needs and concerns. Some questions which they may ask out aloud, or to themselves, could be:
“Will my family cope with my changed circumstances, or when I’m gone?”
“Why is this happening to me?” “Does my life still have meaning?”
“Where can I find comfort and hope?” “Why has God done this to me?”
If we are tempted to say that ‘God won’t put more on us than we can bear”, people may feel it trivializes what is happening for them. If they are unwell with something you feel you have experienced, or someone you know has, resist saying “I know just how you feel!” Listen to how it is for them, as we are all different and don’t really know how it is for another.
Loss and grief are part of most illnesses, and doesn’t have to involve a death. Grief and loss can be from loss of independence right then and there- in moving about freely or taking ourselves to the bathroom. It can also be seen in loss of independence in the future, if unable to walk or drive a car. It could be because of a loss of contact with friends and family while a patient in a hospital, grief of not being able to return to your own home, or loss of privacy.
People need to be reassured that what they are feeling and fearing is normal.
Pain too can be all consuming, so we need to be aware of how much pain they are in. Ask ourselves, “Is the timing right?” If people aren’t ready or able to talk at length, let them rest. Concentration levels may be very low and short visits may be best.
We also have to show that we have time to spend with them, if not right then, to be able to make another time to visit. Show that they are important to us. Ring and ask them about this, and say you will call them again – and remember to do it.
Be sensitive to the moods and feelings of the other. Start where they are.
Yet, if the other person is sharing at great length, it may be us who has to pray for perseverance and stamina! Sometimes we can begin our visit by saying that we have 20, 30, 40, 60 minutes
If someone appears depressed, it is most helpful to listen to what it is like for them in that dark pit, rather than trying to get them to snap out of it. Remind them of the fact of God’s love, even if they don’t feel it, with out preaching at them.
To be able to share deeply, people need to be ready, to feel safe, and to know that what they say will not be gossiped around. Ask their permission to share with others, even if it is in a Church Prayer Group/time.
Taking cues from what we are told, and concentrating on how they are feeling can help them to make some sense of what is happening for them.
Asking “What has helped you to get through hard times such as these?” can remind them of resources they have within themselves. This may be their faith.
In hearing people’s stories, they can explore their place in God’s story and get some reassurance that God is still with them. People may ask “Where is God in all this?” We all yearn to be part of a larger story. Telling our story and experiences over and over can help to make what is happening now, be part of our future story. New insights can be discovered when people talk and we listen. Listening can help to heal emotionally and spiritually.
There are also ‘rituals’ which can bring comfort to those who are sick, such as the act of visiting, sending cards, bringing gifts of flowers, magazines or chocolates.
Often Christian rituals or practices, such as prayer, reading Bible passages, doing devotions or taking part in the Lord’s Supper, can help bridge the gap between the divine and our human stories. It can be an assurance that God Cares and he is faithful - a rock when everything else is like shifting sand. It is comforting to be reminded that God is in control, even when everything else seems out of control. (Some Bible references which may be helpful are listed at the end).
Sometimes people cannot pray for themselves and appreciate being asked if they’d like us to pray for them – now or later in our own prayer time.
If we are visiting people (family members, friends, workmates or neighbours) who have no faith or a different faith to us, it is important to have a strong foundation in our own Christian beliefs. We can then listen to what is important to them, and not waver in our own convictions – that God loves us and that his Son, Jesus Christ, died for our sins. I do pray before I go to visit someone, asking God to go before me and asking the Holy Spirit to give me wisdom in what I say and do. There may be opportunities in time to come, to speak to them of the hope we have in Christ, but initially listening carefully to them is vital. Trust has to be built. Every human on earth has the same needs to be loved, to love, to be respected, to be heard, to be understood, to not feel alone, and to be comforted.
Try not to put our own expectation of their recovering time on to them. Everybody is different!
Instead, ask how things are going for them. Express empathy, without being over emotional, so that they don’t need to end up comforting you!
Added to this, we all have our own personal experiences of what we found helpful when we were unwell. Remember these times, trust that you have the God-given resources to show love for the other person, and that you do not go alone!
May God bless us all in this good work.
Some Bible verses which may be helpful- not in any particular order:
1 Peter 1: 3-7; 1 Peter 5:6-7; Phil 3:20-21; Phil 4:6-7; Rom 5:3; Rom 8:16-18, 35-39; 2 Cor 4: 8-9, 16-18; 2 Cor 12:7-10; parts of Psalms 23, 36, 42, 91, 103, 119, 121, 139; John 10: 27-30; John 14:27; 1 John 3:1-2; Prov 3:5-6; Isa 40:28-31; Isa 41: 10; Isa 43:1-3; Matt 6: 25-34; Matt 11:28-30; Lam 3:22-24)