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.