A reader in the medical profession asked me recently how I personally process the understandable hurts that come when investing with those who suffer and are dying. Here are some of the things I shared with him. If you are a medical professional, I’d love to hear from you about how you process these things:
I actually get your question often. We have an unusually high number of medical professionals at our church here in Fargo, and a number of them are in situations where end-of-life issues are all too common. And, as you mention, in my role, I’m often one of those having to communicate the terrible news that someone has died, or that someone will, not to mention having had those moments when I needed to help a family with end-of-life decision making regarding loved ones. Moreover, if it helps, I used to chair the biomedical ethics committee at a community hospital, so I’ve rubbed shoulders with a lot of medical professionals wrestling with the thing on your heart.
A couple of things come to my mind, but one of my fears in answering your question is that I don’t wish to come off as if these are easy or simple answers. These things are so hard, and can take a toll. Perhaps, however, these observations that I’ve come to in my own life will help.
A starting place for me is giving myself permission to hurt. I don’t mind crying, all the way home in my truck, if need be, and sometimes even with a given person. I will sometimes even tell myself that my circumstances are like a real-life parable being lived out in which I experience more fully what Jesus must feel like when he grieves because of me or others. In that sense I identify with his suffering a little bit more. Sometimes a good “yell” at God, wherein I express my frustration over this person’s circumstances or that person’s death, gets it off my chest. God can handle it. He understands the pain better than I do.
Another value for me is remembering that I may be one of the only ones privileged to have precious moments with a suffering and/or dying man or woman. Gentle words, laughter, tears, holding a hand, sponging a warm face, pulling a blanket up higher, and so forth, can be sweet moments. I do what I am sure you already do, and that is recognize that I have the privilege of offering dignity and respect in the midst of otherwise messy and undignified circumstances. I have the chance to push past the mess and be a servant when maybe very few others are willing to join that person there. If I allow myself to see this as a significant calling (“God has called me to serve and love those who are dying or suffering”) then it helps bolster my heart a bit for the task. As a Christian, I see such moments as a time to quietly and lovingly prepare fellow believers for their transition to Heaven. If they are not believers, then I see it as a chance for them to see Christ in me, perhaps even to hear of Christ from me.
Yet another value for me is to create healthy and responsible moments to decompress. I go home. I go to my daughter’s sporting event. I watch a good movie. I go fishing with a friend. I get lost in a book. These things and more force me to move on, so to speak, realizing that in a world where so much of my time is dealing with suffering and death, it is not the whole of who I am. The key, however, is to ensure these are edifying things. Amy Carmichael, a sage from past days, once wrote, “there is no harm in recreation—if by that you mean a pasttime that will re-equip you for future work, and will not cause a leakage of spiritual power. We must have a fresh in-flooding of life for soul and body too, or we will dry up and be like deserts in a desert.”
Lastly, for now, I LOVE being a pastor, but it is not my primary definition. Long before God utters anything to me about the church I serve he will hold me accountable for my family. Being intentional about engaging my family is huge. God can use their messes and their joys and their needs and their laughter and their hugs, and so much more, to bring immeasurable comfort to me when I am wounded and weary.
And, at the risk of soundly profoundly trite, a good dog helps too!