My subgroup of CPE students consists of five people, plus our two supervisors, Jodie and Anita (not their real names, of course). Often, in discussing verbatims, I have been dismayed by what seems an inappropriate, too-ambitious or even arrogant agenda for a patient visit. For instance, deciding that a patient needs to reconcile with a certain relative, even though the patient hasn’t said a single word about wanting to do this. In the case of this particular verbatim, Jodie gently pointed out that a patient whose time is short may or may not want to allocate his energy in this way.
Earlier this week, I was riding the shuttle over to the other campus for my on-call shift and musing about how a peer of mine often proceeds in a way I would not dream of—also, come to think of it, that one, that one, and that one! It suddenly dawned on me that I’m the only person in my group who rarely thinks a patient needs to do this or that. I have certainly felt judgmental about this, since of course I think the way I do it is the right way, and on this day, I felt like the odd woman out: one of these things is not like the others. Also, if the job is to go around trying to get patients to do this or that, maybe it’s not the job for me.
I then recalled a staff chaplain sharing with me what another staff chaplain had told her: “There is nothing we can fix, nothing whatsoever. All we can do is accompany patients.” When I got to the other campus, I shared my misgivings with one of my young fellow students and he said he is having the exact same thoughts. He mused about how we are being trained in a certain assessment model: to figure out where a patient fits in this view of things, and to apply the corresponding ameliorative measures. However, my peer said, people don’t come to the hospital because they have a spiritual problem. They come because they have a medical problem that they want the doctors and nurses to address. He also said he tends to lead with his head, and so he’s wondering if this is the right line of work for him.
I think this is a fine young man (and exceedingly bright), and though I was having the same feelings, I didn’t want to be the partial cause of his giving up on something he might find very rewarding, so I said that I also lead with my head, and sometimes I miss getting to use my brains more, as I got to do in my previous job, but I also am drawn strongly to this work, and I trust my capacity to do it, and I also trust his capacity to do it, if that’s his choice. “I trust your heart,” I told him.
That evening, as it happens, I met with a young mother with a gravely ill baby who feared that his illness was the punishment for a bad thing she had done. After all my mental huffing and puffing about not imposing our views on patients, I found myself strongly advocating for an adjustment to her view of God.
This is what I said, quoting from the verbatim I wrote about this visit; what’s in parentheses is what I was thinking:
“I’d like to think that God would say that every single person on this earth has done things they regret—I certainly have. That we all have done many things we regret—I have. We have all done things that have harmed ourselves and harmed others, and I’d like to think that God loves us and forgives us, if He was ever upset with us at all.” (I feel very uneasy sharing my own thoughts about God—who I don't even believe in—with this woman. I don’t want to push my ideas on her, but the alternative seems to be letting her persist in the idea that God, who is supposed to love her, has made her baby gravely ill, so I think this is the greater good at this moment.)
Later I said:
“Maybe it is true that God punishes us for things we have done and I know you are wondering why your baby is ill. But I’d like to think that God loves us completely, more than we can understand, and that he would not harm a baby to punish us. Your baby being ill may be part of a giant mystery that we can’t understand.” (Not my exact words, but something like that. The patient’s mother looks calmer.)
I go on to say:
“I can’t imagine what you're going through. You know, I think God already loves and forgives you. I think the person who needs to forgive you is you. I see your love and care for your baby, and I think you also need your own love and care.”
Patient: “You really think maybe I need to forgive myself?”
Me: “That’s really what I think. I’m sure you’ve asked God for forgiveness many times.”
“Maybe it’s time for you to give yourself your own forgiveness.”
The patient’s mother said she felt better, and she did look visibly relieved, and she was no longer crying. As I was leaving, it occurred to me that I had once done the same thing she did. I said, “You know, I once [did such-and-such] myself.”
“You did?” Her face lights up.
“Yes, I did,” I say with a smile, and we part beaming at each other.
I hope she thought later, “If a chaplain did the same thing, maybe it’s not that bad” and not “That must have been the world’s worst chaplain! Maybe I’d better talk to a priest.”