N is for No

(This post is part of the ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)

It was the most abrupt end to a patient visit I’ve ever had as a hospital chaplain. I had told the man that his comments were beginning to make me uncomfortable, and that if he didn’t go back to talking about something in which I could actually be of help to him in pastoral care terms, then I would leave. He continued saying inappropriate things, so I stood up to go. As I walked out of the patient’s room, all the visitors and staff members in the hall could hear him yelling at me, “Just one night! I need you! I NEED YOU!” Whether it was his medication talking or something else, he insisted that the answer to his numerous problems was spending one night with “a good woman like you.” I had no problem telling him no.

Sometimes it is not so easy, however. Saying no can be a difficult but necessary part of my job. I am a people-pleaser by nature. I want to be able to do what is requested of me. I don’t want to disagree with or confront anyone, if I’m honest. It still requires taking a deep breath, saying a silent prayer, and pushing myself. I had to learn the hard way not to say yes to every request – when a patient wanted me to lay hands on his wound, which happened to be in a very intimate location; when a very needy woman asked for my personal phone number, then proceeded to use it several times a day; when I was asked (even jokingly) for a lap dance; when the pager went off again and I had just sat down to eat for the first time in six hours.

Saying no can be a way of setting healthy boundaries. I can’t provide good pastoral care if I’m being taken advantage of, allowing myself to be manipulated into enabling patients’ habits, putting myself at risk, or not taking care of my own physical needs. When I told my CPE supervisor once that I hadn’t eaten anything during my overnight on-call shift, he told me I had to find the time to do so. “But people were dying!” I told him defensively. “It’s a hospital,” he told me calmly. “People are always dying. You still have to eat.” I can take ten minutes to normalize my blood sugar levels. I can pray for the patient’s wound from an appropriate distance, without putting my hand directly on it. I can give out the phone number of the chaplains’ office instead of my own. I don’t have to say yes to everything.

Without a doubt, the most difficult times to say no are when it means contradicting someone else. This I try to do delicately, when I do it at all. Often, it is when a family member or friend of someone suffering a loss offers unhelpful platitudes that hamper their grieving process. “You know we can’t question God,” they might say, or, “Don’t cry. Just be thankful it wasn’t worse.” I believe I need to step in at those moments, to let them know it’s okay to cry or be angry, that asking God why this happened or expressing their most honest, raw emotions in prayer is a sign of deep faith, not the lack of it. If I as a minister can create safe space for them to do that, it can be incredibly healing. At the right time and place, a no can open doors instead of closing them.

4 thoughts on “N is for No

  1. I think once we are comfortable saying “no” that we will get less of the kinds of requests that require a “no.” Why this paradox? Because I think that needy and manipulative people can sense which of us are vulnerable in this boundary area and go after it.
    In the last part of your post, you bring up an infinitely more complex issue that deserves elaboration in future posts: how to handle persons’ comments that seem to be “bad for” them. I say this is complex, because maybe at the particular moment the person states the platitude, they are coping by staying numb and keeping the tears at bay. I might say something back like, “So that’s how you are looking at things at this time, right?” This at least hints that in the future they might find a different way of looking at things. Then depending on their answer, you will see if the platitude is giving them short-term comfort, or whether they feel obliged to say such thing in front of a chaplain, etc. etc. Thus as I say, infinitely complex.

    1. I agree, Karen. The question of damaging theology is too complex to fit into one post. It is easier for me to confront when the person saying it is not one most directly affected by the tragedy/crisis, but an outside source trying to “cheer up” that person. In the cases where the person most affected is the one using these platitudes, I’m more likely to think this may be a protection mechanism that they need in the moment, as you said.

      1. You are absolutely right about this trickier case of someone other than the patient saying the platitude. Ideally, we should take that well-meaning person out of earshot of the patient, and gently get them to see how besides hindering the patient, they are struggling to quell their own anxiety and feelings of helplessness.

  2. Pingback: Faux Chaplains | offbeatcompassion

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