Have you ever heard this declaration from someone experiencing great loss? Have you been bedside with a family member as they watch a loved one die and pass? When this transition occurs there are many options available to each of us. We can thank God for the life of a loved one or we can curse God. We can feel guilt for not having done more or peace at the passing of a legacy. We can rejoice at a life made free, or challenged at the thought of a life lost. But most definitely we are going to be affected deeply with every possible emotion emitted for others to witness or not. So as chaplains, how do we respond to the person who says, “I am angry with your God (god)?” I was recently presented with this challenge as a new (10 months) married husband watched his beloved wife die as life-support was taken off post cardiac arrest.
In the case I am referencing, which is one of many I have journeyed through as a hospital chaplain, I was faced with the question of what is my purpose or goal here? I am a spiritual caregiver or provider. My role is not religious alone, but primarily as encourager, abider and listener, a presence for people to help them through a difficult experience or crisis. My options are many and they vary of course with the circumstance as we call it or see it. Many times the situation is complicated by the presence of many individuals or family members dealing in disparate ways with the same crisis. The challenge is not to cure but to journey with, and be present in it with them.
The Association of Professional Chaplains has a theme every year for Pastoral Care Week. The one that I have held onto, including the theme poster still hanging in my office is “Listening Presence.” Listening in silence or with feedback by question or comment is a powerful ministry. We are here to help people experience, express and perhaps transcend their self. The ministry of listening is a good place to start. As long as I am talking about APC, let me talk about CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), which is a requirement for every chaplain. The training is based on removing yourself from the equation of interaction. The conversation with patient is not about me. But our preconditioning can get in the way. In the ICU death I discuss, it is difficult to not react to the accusation. However, it is not about me. I was not the true target of the anger or fear, I just happened to be there. My role was to listen and take it, responding only if it was helpful. That’s what verbatims dealt with for me often as my own childhood had dealt with walking on “eggshells” in an alcoholic household filled with personal accusations. Suffice it to say, listening is an acquired skill. Much more could be said about how this ministry might be best accomplished, but what about speaking?A statement often attributed to Saint Frances of Assisi is, “preach the gospel and if you must use words.” He probably didn’t say it and it is controversial. One theologian, Mark Galli said, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul put on preaching. Of course, we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns” I do still believe that silence and empathy through caring is powerful. I also concur that giving a glass of water or therapeutic touch is powerful too. Sometimes prayer is a very calming and empowering tool. In fact, regardless of a person’s faith, I have only been turned down for offering prayer twice in my ministry. I think the Apostle Peter had it right when saying, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11). This is the way we are to proceed in ministry to the hurting. Through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit we are to serve. If we need to quote God’s promises, they never return void.
Sometimes we have an opportunity to go deep with a patient or family member on the meaning of the displayed anger or fear or other strong emotion that might present itself. At death grief can speak loudly through words or actions. In the case I am addressing in this article, the son of the deceased moved through different emotions from pleasantly talkative and familiar to a more aggressive grief as his mother died. We talked openly about work and family before the family decided to turn off life support, even though his mother had been in the same grave condition for many hours. When death was real and imminent, fear and anger occurred in a physical way. The son told me “back off you are too close” when I tried to address him after his mother’s death. Some of us can’t face grief easily because it is scary and makes us back away.
So are you angry with God (god)? Are you calling “God” someone else’s because you were hurt or disappointed in God? Do you not know God and think of god as some idol or crutch and are bitter and or don’t think you need the Creator of your life? Well, think about it. I doubt that the folks reading this fit that category, but many in this increasingly secular and angry world do blame God. I think that this election cycle is bringing up some of this anger very dysfunctionally. Maybe there will be something therapeutic for some from it, but I doubt that many are thinking very introspectively about the debate language because it is so visceral.
My supervisor at the hospital responded to my first draft asking an important question that identifies that chaplains can become lightening rods for anger. “Do you think that some people also will direct their anger over the situation toward us, because they are really angry with the situation/circumstances that occurred to cause the death of their loved one (drugs, alcohol), and they do not want to be angry at the one they just lost, so because we are present, we will take to brunt of their grief/anger?”
Grief is real and dramatic when brought on by a death, unexpected or not. The first stage of grief is shock or anger. It is very understandable for the bereaved to strike out verbally or even physically. I recall a death in an African-American family where there were at least three generations in the hospital room. The Matron of the family was singing Amazing Grace, while a grandson of the deceased punched a hole through the wall in anger or fear. In the same family situation, a grand daughter collapsed in my arms and I carried her to a nearby couch to revive and care for her. We just cannot predict the reactions of people in grief. But we need to join them in the journey as best we can.