I won’t say I’ve heard it all, but as a hospital chaplain, I hear a lot. There are things people say in the midst of crisis that they wouldn’t say otherwise. Things that a few years ago would have made me blush or left me speechless, I now take in stride. When I was called to the room of an elderly patient who was actively dying, I found his children and grandchildren gathered around the bed. I expressed my sympathies, listened to their stories about him, and at their request prayed for a peaceful passing for him at the right time, as well as comfort and strength for his family. Before leaving, I asked, “Is there anything else I can do?” The patient’s grandson, a few years younger than me, asked, “I don’t guess you do lap dances, do you?” His mother used his full name as she smacked him in the back of the head, looking at me apologetically. “What?” he said. “Not for me, for Grandpa! You never know what might help.”
Without batting an eye, I informed him that no, I definitely do not do lap dances. “I didn’t mean any disrespect,” he said. “I just needed to break the tension, you know?” I nodded. “That’s what I figured, which is why I won’t file a complaint against you or anything,” I told him with a smile. His mother apologized again on his behalf, saying it was unusual for him to behave like that. “That’s grief,” I said. “Unusual kind of goes out the window.” I don’t know what would be considered a “normal” grief response, but the ones I’ve seen have been all over the place. Some people make inappropriate jokes. Some throw themselves in the floor, wailing. Others show no outward response at all when they hear bad news. I have been screamed and cussed at, nearly vomited on, almost crushed by collapsing family members, and was standing nearby when one patient’s son put his fist through a glass door. In some cases, in order to protect myself and others, I do have to tell people that it is not appropriate to express their grief that way in the hospital, and try to help them find other ways to grieve at that moment. Otherwise, if they are not hurting themselves or anyone else, I let them say or do whatever feels right to them.
The people around them may be horrified, particularly when religion enters the picture. When a patient expresses anger at the unfairness of a crippling injury or terminal diagnosis, or when a family member demands answers from the heavens when one they love has died, others in the room may start to squirm. “Now you know we can’t question God,” I have heard them say, or, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “This is all part of God’s plan.” This is a grief response too, a defense mechanism, and it can be dangerous to challenge it in the moment. But at times I do, because it is a destructive and ultimately unsustainable theology that does not allow for questions. As Frederick Buechner has said of faith, “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.” The Bible is full of people who questioned and doubted, and they were not the enemies of God. They were God’s own people, the ones striving for faith, working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul put it. And the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books of the Bible, begins with the words, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!'” Elizabeth Hagan’s post on letting go of the need to find meaning in everything is a good read. If the biblical writers could do it without being struck by lightning, I think we can too. But it can be scary, especially for those who have been raised on the notion that it is a sin to question God in any way.
One of the most beautiful and raw expressions of faith I have ever witnessed came from a man whose wife had just died on the hospital’s oncology unit. I was called in just before she passed away, and when she was gone, her friends and siblings tried to comfort her husband by telling him, “She’s in a better place now. God took her home to be with him forever.” I came around to the other side of the bed where he was standing, put my hand on his shoulder, and asked, “Mr. S____, is there anything I can do for you as the chaplain?” I noticed he was shaking. He turned with teary eyes and clenched teeth. “I want to hold on to my faith in God,” he said, “but I really want to tell him he’s a selfish son of a bitch.” His sister gasped, and others in the room tried to shush him, making apologies to me. I never took my eyes off him. I was in awe of his honesty. “Then you should say it,” I told him. “God already knows you’re thinking it anyway, right? I don’t think there’s anything you can say that’s too much for God. Just say what you really feel. God can handle it.” He wrapped his arms around me, laid his head on my shoulder, and wept for a long time.
While I’m not shocked by anything I hear as a chaplain anymore, I can be surprised. People like the man who cried on my shoulder surprise me. Like Jesus when he met the centurion whose servant was ill, I am amazed at their faith. I find myself wondering whether I could be so faithful in the face of tragedy, and the truth is I don’t know. As a wise friend who has been in such a situation told me, none of us really knows until we are there. Someday I’ll find out, whether I want to or not. Until then, I remain unfazed by inappropriate comments, but constantly surprised by faith.