Friday, December 30, 2016


A couple of Saturday nights ago, a relatively young man died in the emergency room. His family visited not all together, but sequentially. First his brother came and was extremely upset for half an hour, and then his father came and wailed loudly for about the same length of time, and finally another brother came and talked to me nonstop for 90 minutes or so on a wide range of topics, including some horrendous family incidents. I was exhausted after that.

I had kind of a strange visit with a patient a couple of day before Christmas, and did something I felt bad about later. I was on call and trying to juggle multiple tasks, and tried to fit in a visit with this patient, even though I could hear she was on the phone. “How long are you here?”, she asked, and something about her tone raised my hackles a bit. I wasn't sure how to answer, because I was scheduled to be there all night, but would just as soon not make appointments for 2 a.m. I told her I had to go provide a blessing for someone who had died and would try her back afterward. In retrospect, I see that I was slightly stressed by own attempt to fit too many things into the same set of minutes, and that I felt a little threatened by her question, which is to say that I was subtly rebuking her by mentioning the fact of death. She looked taken aback, and I felt ashamed of myself. Before I left the room, she asked what religion I am, and by the time I returned, she was ready to try to convert me to hers, and gave it a good solid effort.

I said, “My beliefs are different, but I’m glad you have a robust faith you can rely on.” Five minutes later she tried again, and I gave the same response. A few minutes later, not at all abashed, she again explained why her religion is particularly amazing. She had quite a determined manner; maybe that’s what pushed my buttons in our first brief conversation. This patient complained several days later to a peer of mine that she had been visited by no fewer than three Buddhist chaplains, and she declined to have one of us who identifies as Catholic and Buddhist pray for her, because she doesn’t understand how someone could be both.

The night of my first visit with her, I was called to provide a blessing for a second person who had died. At this man’s beside was his daughter, accompanied by a friend.

I asked, “Can you tell me a bit about your father?”

“My father? He was funny. He was a deacon in the church.”

“Is your mother living?”

“This is my mother.” Namely the person lying dead on the bed in front of me. Very big oops. From now on, I will consult the chart of the deceased party beforehand for key details such as gender.
As that evening passed, I noticed that I had once again fallen into being “nice” and ignoring the emotion that was actually present for me, which was sorrow. I’ve been rereading Charles W. Taylor’s The Skilled Pastor, in which he says it is the relationship that heals, and it is the skillful, attuned conducting of a conversation that builds a relationship. I’ve been against having any particular agenda from the beginning of clinical pastoral education and when I have proceeded in accord with some sort of plan, such as using the assessment model we have been taught, it has frequently felt strained and artificial.

With The Skilled Pastor in mind, lately I have again let go of any agenda, which initially led to several conversations that were extremely long and pretty much purely social in nature. One patient said happily, “Rarely do I get the chance to tell someone my whole life story! Let’s see, I was born ... ” And I could not figure out how to get out of that room; a tremendous inertia set in and I sat there for an hour. She seemed happy when we parted, but that obviously is not a fruitful way to proceed, and once again, I found myself wondering if I have any aptitude at all for what I’m actually supposed to be doing, or any interest in doing it, and then I began to worry about my financial future—if I’m not going to be this, what am I going to be?—which took me that much farther from my own true emotional experience.

I made an effort to get in touch with my own emotions, and an interesting thing happened in the next couple of visits: I was conscious of my own feelings, and of the physical sensations in the area of my chest, and both of the people I was speaking with cried.

One of our perks is several free sessions with a counselor, so I have gone twice to see a young lady therapist at student health services, and spent most of both sessions talking about F. In our second session, she said, “Let’s pause for a moment and think about how best to use this time. I wonder if you’d like to try getting in touch with any emotions that are present.”

Normally I would disavow having any—at least, that’s what I do when my own mental health professional tries this—but I know that a lot of what they try to teach you in CPE is awareness of your own emotions, and since I want to get all I can out of this experience, I said “Sure” and was amazed to find myself completely in tears. It was a relief to cry in the presence of a calm, kind person. I guess it was my own willingness to feel my feelings and something about A.’s presence that made that happen. So if there is a manner in which I can be present that allows patients to cry, I think that’s a good thing. Maybe being in touch with my own feelings while speaking with others is a crafty way of turning social visits into something more healing, and one I can feel entirely good about, unlike asking questions per some assessment model.
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