How Wrong I Was: Understanding People in Pain and Grief…

Once upon a time, I had assumed my job as a minister was to bring good cheer into a hospital room. I’m an upbeat, extroverted kind of guy. Smile and make sad people happy, right? Make small talk to keep people’s mind off their pain, right? Not necessarily.

Alexander Pope wrote that “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

One of the first lessons I learned in seminary was counter-intuitive: Shut up and Listen! Let the patient take the lead. If they are sad, let them talk about their sadness. “How are things going?” is the right question, even if they are smiling when you enter the room. The patient may be putting on a brave front for the pastor, the family and even the doctor. They would love for someone to let them talk about their pain and fear.

Also, I was dead wrong about grief. (Yes, that’s a pun.) As a young man, I had experienced almost no trauma worse than getting cut from the high school football team. When people spoke of grieving for a pet that died, I thought they were silly. During my seminary studies, I learned how wrong I was. When the professor told us a person might grieve when a family heirloom broke, I knew I had a lot to learn.

God save us all from people who feel the need to speak for God in a crisis with platitudes such as, “God needed another flower in his garden.”

Remember that Jesus wept when his friend died.

Mother’s Day was celebrated in my childhood church almost as if it were Christmas. Awards were given to the Mother with the most children, to the oldest Mother, and then to the youngest Mother, which was a bit weird because, one year, that was a 14-year-old girl.   While at seminary, we were taught that Mother’s Day is not a universally happy occasion. Consider the 50-year-old women, married and unmarried, who wanted children but never had them. Some of them avoid church altogether on Mother’s Day. Consider the women whose sons and daughters have died or are incarcerated. Mother’s Day does not bring happy memories for everyone.

Well-intentioned people do not necessarily know the right thing to say or do when someone is in distress, pain or grief. Caution and quiet humility may be the most helpful approach.

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Health | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “How Wrong I Was: Understanding People in Pain and Grief…

  1. texsc

    We “live and learn,” don’t we, Marion? The situations you cite are valuable ones most of us in the ministry have had to learn: the sooner the better.

  2. J. Earl

    Still feel that really listening to the other is the best ministry we can offer

  3. Pamela Greenlaw

    The other hard part of grief is listening to people who say they have no grief. And believe them with a straight face.

  4. KenZ

    Being present, listening and being willing to let them see my tears for them is where I tend to go as I never feel I know the right words.
    What you say about mothers day is true about fathers day as well. Excluding those without children from the ‘kids’ activities can leave them feeling friendless as the majority has children.

  5. Thank you Marion for taking the time to write and share with a wider public. You have a real gift of bending down and picking up the rock others absently walk by and viewing all the life squiggling beneath.

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