(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
Working in a hospital is sometimes enough to make you superstitious (though, like Michael Scott, I try to be only a little stitious). Full moons really do seem to bring out more of the crazy stuff. If someone mentions that we haven’t had a gunshot wound all day, ER staff members would bet that one will arrive within the hour. And whatever you do, don’t say anything to the effect of, “It sure is quiet around here.” In my book, I tell the story of how I got on a nurse’s bad side by jinxing her shift with the Q word.
Now that I’ve been on the job for a few years, I know not to say the word “quiet.” But in truth, quiet is a big part of my job. I’ve always been one to listen more than I speak, and during my chaplain residency, I was surprised to find that trait a strength. Not everyone felt the same, however. I remember when an intern chaplain was shadowing me and questioned my methods. He was a retired minister, a preacher through and through, one of those guys who makes it hard for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. He assured me before we responded to the first call from the pager, “I’ll just follow your lead, sweetie.”
That turned out to be harder than he thought. We entered the room of a patient who had just died. More than a dozen family members had gathered at her bedside to say goodbye. I walked around to each one, introducing myself and my “shadow,” learning how they were related to her, listening to their stories of what they would miss most about her. I didn’t say much other than to express that I was sorry for their loss, and that I could tell how much they loved her. Eventually a silence settled upon the room. We all sat in chairs around her bed, and every now and then a family member would begin to cry again. I would offer them tissues with a gentle hand on their shoulder, but no one said a word. After several minutes, it was too much for the intern shadowing me.
He had been squirming in the chair beside me and finally leaned over to say, “Do you always spend this much time just sitting here not saying anything, dear? I can speak to them if you like.” Without moving or looking at him, I quietly replied, “Ernie*, shadows don’t talk.” He seemed to get the point, and sat in silence with me and the family for the rest of the visit, whether he liked it or not.
What did he expect me to say? What is there to say in moments like that? It seems to me that in the very best and very worst times of our lives, words fail. There’s no language sufficient to describe the heartbreak or joy, the gratitude or rage, the pain or the love we feel then. The best we can do is often a sigh, a gasp, a groan, a laugh, a sob, a scream. Many times I have taken comfort in the value my religious tradition places on quiet. The Bible is full of admonitions to be still, be silent, wait quietly. In the book of 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah encounters God, and we may be surprised to find that God does not show up in the gale-force wind, or the earthquake that follows it, or the fire after that. Instead God is revealed in a “still small voice,” or in some translations a “sound of sheer silence.”
When I sit in silence with the man who has just received a terminal diagnosis, or the woman who is about to deliver healthy twins despite years of infertility, or the family whose loved one has died, I am listening for that still small voice. Anything I could say would be much too small. So I listen to whatever they need to say, if they have words for it, and trust that God is in those spaces where words fail. If they ask me to pray, I often use familiar words, insufficient though they may be. And I remind myself of the promise in Romans 8 that even when I am quiet, the Spirit will intercede for us “with sighs too deep for words.”
*not his real name