(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
Working closely with children is one of the best and worst parts of my job. Sometimes it means I get to hold a new baby and speak a blessing over her, as I did with my friends’ daughter, Elli, in the above photo. It means playing Legos with the kid whose mom is working one of her three jobs and who just wants some company while he recovers from another round of chemotherapy. It means talking to the very tall 12-year-old boy in the emergency room in a way that lets him know I understand he’s still a kid, and that it’s okay to be scared or to cry. I love being with kids in those moments.
But when things go badly in cases where kids are involved, it’s the worst thing imaginable. Being a chaplain sometimes means I get called in to baptize the baby who won’t live through the night. It means handing tissues to a grieving mother as she watches her child take his last breaths. It means maintaining my calm as a father who hears that his child has just died flies into a destructive rage. In my new book, I tell a story in an early chapter of a pediatric patient who stole my heart over the course of several months, and whose death nearly broke me. Anyone who works with children in a hospital will tell you that it’s just about impossible not to love them, and that the hardest thing to learn is how to cope with losing them.
What the kids I meet in the hospital have taught me more than anything else is the unique beauty of each life. Parents of infants who lived only hours or days will tell me about their child, and every one is special, every one made an impact on their world. Teenagers facing everything from cancer to mental illness have wrestled with the questions of life’s unfairness and God’s goodness as honestly and eloquently as any psalmist. It was a privilege just to sit and listen to each one’s different perspective. And it was a joy to get to know a little girl whose difficult and uncomfortable healing process could not diminish her playful personality. When she was given an iPad to play with during her stay, the staff showed her how to use the “girl” games, full of princesses and fashion dolls. But she preferred an app that simulated rude bodily sounds, and her favorite thing to do was click it just as her medical team was walking by her bed in the ICU and yell, “Eww! Doctor, why’d you do that?! Yuck!”
Kids never fail to surprise me. They are so much smarter, so much stronger, so much braver than we give them credit for, when we give them the space to be. Too often we try to shield them from the difficult realities of life, but we can’t. Parents, siblings, or the kids themselves get sick, get hurt, even die. As a chaplain, I can’t stop any of that from happening. All I can do is help give kids the freedom to deal with it all in their own way — to be sad or be silly, to make up a story or draw a picture, to cry or play games or sing songs, to ask questions that even grown-ups might be unable to answer. They in turn give me new ways of seeing the world and of understanding God. It’s no wonder that Jesus told us all to be like children, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.