15 December 2012

Ministering to the traumatized

While in the studium (seminary) I served as a chaplain to the E.R./Trauma Unit at St Louis University Hospital during the summer of 2002.

One afternoon I was called to the E.R. to minister to a family who's 52 y.o. mother had been brought into the hospital for heat stroke and a possible heart attack.

When I got the E.R. but before I saw the family in the waiting room, the charge nurse told me that the woman was D.O.A. 

I went out to the family. . .introduced myself. . .and sat down with them to wait.  More family members arrived while we waited.

After about a 20 mins the E.R. doc came into the waiting room and told the family that their mother had died of a massive heart attack.

They erupted in grief. I just sat there.

When the worst of the grieving had ebbed a bit, I said, "Would you like to see her?"  They said, "Yes."

I went to arrange a visit for the family.  When we entered the room, the family started crying again.  I just stood there. One of the older members of the family said, "Let's pray."  We all held hands and the man prayed.

I walked them back out to the E.R. waiting room and spoke briefly with the oldest daughter about how to arrange for her mother's body to be transported to the funeral home.  

They left.

The next day the director of pastoral care called me into her office and told me that a couple of the family members had called her about my service to the family.  She told me that they raved about my ministry to them and wanted to invite me to the funeral.  She congratulated me on a job well done.

I was stunned, frankly.  In all, I'd spoken maybe 30 words the whole afternoon. And nothing I said was in any way "pastoral" or "spiritual." I didn't even initiate or lead the prayer!  My silence wasn't a stroke of wisdom or even a plan. I didn't know what to say. . .I had nothing to say.

Lesson: when ministering to folks who've been traumatized by the death of a loved one, keep your mouth shut.  Just be there with them.

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  1. Yup, the last thing family needs to hear at that moment is a bunch of platitudes.

    1. I cringe when I hear, "She's an angel in heaven now." No. We don't change species when we die.

  2. Having been on the receiving end of such ministering, I agree that with probably many (if not most or all) traumatic events "just be there with them" is a good rule to keep in mind. You don't want to get in the way of the natural grieving/healing process.

  3. Anonymous12:35 PM

    A good preacher (or Preacher) not only learns what to say, but, very importantly, what not to say.

  4. Anonymous5:31 PM

    Funny that for me, who had read the red Lesson at the end before the rest of the post, it looked like the story didn't have the fortunate happy ending it had...having to talk to a mourning person renders me numb and speechless. I'm sure there are great things to be said in such circumstances but I'm never the one able to do it...specially now that I avoid like the plague the yucky (and sadly common) "Canonization Routine" people offer to mourning relatives of the deceased.

    1. ". . .having to talk to a mourning person renders me numb and speechless."

      That's the Holy Spirit working in you. Silence is the only answer.

  5. Anonymous1:09 PM

    I have a very good friend who was there for me when my father died. I thank God for him and his service. Not many people are as blessed when they confront those difficult life moments. Politics, ideology, worldview, and all other reality aside, I am happy that person has been in my life.