October 22, 2017

Tell Me About Your Day

By Chaplain Mike

OK, so here is a brief report of some of the stories I heard on a recent day of visiting hospice patients and their families. (Details have been changed.)

In the morning I visited an older man I have come to love. He has a strong faith and contagiously positive spirit. He’s dying. This man has been on hospice for awhile for one problem, but a more serious one developed a few weeks ago and it will take his life soon. Unfortunately, this new issue has caused symptoms which are about the most unpleasant, undignified, and embarrassing that one could imagine (I’ll spare you).

Believe it or not, he has been the “rock” for his family in recent days.

At the same time, his wife has had serious health problems for the past year, and was recently diagnosed with a disease that will likely be terminal. She also battles with depression and has had problems with alcohol for years. Some of her grown children are still dealing with the effects of growing up in an alcoholic home. She believes, but has struggled mightily in practicing her faith.

In addition, this poor couple has a son who is their main caregiver. He has terminal cancer. A year ago, he had to quit working when he received the diagnosis. Somehow, he has battled through radiation, chemotherapy, surgeries, and hospitalizations to become his parents’ main support. He’s had a roller-coaster ride of faith over the years, with three broken marriages and a number of backsliding seasons. Now he’s on borrowed time, along with his mom and dad.

Oh yes, there are other adult children in the family, some of whom actually live right nearby and could easily give help if they wanted to. They don’t, so they don’t.

My second visit was to a man who is alert but extremely confused. He thinks he is carrying on a coherent conversation with you, but he makes no sense. Sitting in his wheelchair, he prattled away. I smiled and listened.

I know a little of his history. He used to go to church; in fact, he was very involved in church and confessed a strong faith. Then, one fateful day, he was accused of a crime. Never convicted of anything, the church nevertheless shunned him, and his wife left home. The neighbors avoided him. He lost his faith. He lived alone for years. A friend cared enough to check on him one day and found him seriously ill.

Now he sits in a nursing home and gets shuttled around from his room to the bathroom to the activity room to the lunch room and back again. Talking, talking all the time.

I had the chance to meet someone new on my third encounter—an elderly lady in her home. Shuffling to the door behind her wheeled walker, this frail little white-haired woman unlocked the door and let me in. Trailing her oxygen tubing behind her, she shuffled back to the living room, and collapsed sideways into her chair. Looking up, I noticed a middle-aged woman sitting in the kitchen watching TV. Turns out it was the patient’s daughter, who likely has leukemia or some serious blood disease. Who just lost her husband a couple of years ago. Who herself has a son with terminal colon cancer. Whose brother, the elderly lady’s only other child, just had surgery, is having a hard time recovering and can’t help out.

The neighbors are probably angry that the yard, garage, and driveway are a mess. If they only knew.

White as a sheet from anemia, the daughter came into the room and introduced herself. She weakly shook my hand. She talked about upcoming tests, blood transfusions, and how the doctors had not been able to pinpoint a specific diagnosis. All she knows is how weak she is and that the future doesn’t look too promising, but she has to keep checking on her mom every day because mom’s so frail.

My final visit of the day was by request. I received a call from the office saying that a certain family would like me to stop later in the afternoon. So I phoned the home and heard a flat, expressionless voice saying, “Yes, that would be fine.”

The patient was a middle-aged woman, relatively healthy with no symptoms a month ago, who came home not feeling well one day. Melanoma. Untreatable. Today, she’s lying at death’s door and the family is keeping vigil. Just prior to the diagnosis, her husband had his third knee surgery and now the doctors want to do more. He lives in constant pain and can’t work, but he’s been doing his best to take care of his wife. He can’t afford to attend to his own needs at the moment.

I would tell you they have a child in prison, and I could list several other major life-disturbing problems in this family’s life, but you might be tempted to not believe me, or maybe you’re just as drained as I am trying to wrap your mind around all of this pain and chaos.

I pray for these people—for peace, comfort, extraordinary measures of grace, for God to be a very present help in time of trouble, for him to hold them in his love and mercy, for Jesus to touch and heal, restore and save. Kyrie eleison.

Now . . .
You wanna tell me about your problems?

Comments

  1. Not anymore I don’t — and my wife and I have had enough of them in the last 18 mos. that most of our friends (including … no, ESPECIALLY the Christian ones!) wonder how we manage to keep going. But God gives us more than we usually realize.

    So we keep going. Our problems pale in comparison to those of most (maybe all) the families you just cited. But like them, God keeps extending grace.

  2. Chaplain,

    The human condition is one of suffering. And suffering is never equal and never fair in our eyes.

    Finding balance in life and faith, in order to continue onward, has always been the challenge for each of us. Sometimes that challenge, to simply abide in Him, seems ludicrous in light of the human carnage we witness.

    God is working all things together for His good purposes. But His ways do not often appear to be serving our immediate personal concerns in any discernable manner.

    And that’s where the gift of faith enters the human equation.

    We must simply hold fast to the truths of His Word that we know to be certain when all human reason rages and screams to the contrary.

    There is no other way. There is no other answer. There is no other hope.

    Christ alone, now, and in the day of our personal suffering which most certainly comes to each of us.

  3. Chaplain,
    Thank you for this article. Many of us need that reminder.

    May I ask you to comment on how you walk through your day, your encounters, your ministry, which is inordinately filled with such pain?

    Kindly,
    Wanda

  4. My advice for anyone who meets those going through intense suffering.

    Do NOT say
    – “God is good”
    – “God is in control”
    – “God has a plan for your life”

    Do
    – Spend some time getting to know the person
    – If they give you permission, pray with them
    – Say “I do not understand God”

  5. Mike (the other chaplain) says:

    Thanks for sharing Chaplain. You are knee-deep in the Kingdom, bringing Christ to the afflicted. Thank you for your service and may God give you the strength to endure!

  6. I have a friend who is doing what you are and I admire your work greatly.

    On my work front, the problems I deal with are more on the “walking wounded” front. I can relate well to your first story. Family problems create so much hurt. In that case, not helping parents close to death because of past “sins” will only keep the hurt alive for, perhaps, the rest of their lives. It is very unfortunate.

    Personally, I have a story up on my blog today about a good medical story. My daughter (18) had a kidney transplant a few months back. Today will be the first day she will be able to attend college in person.

    I am so grateful.

  7. Clay Knick says:

    Mike,

    Sounds like some days I have had! Bless your ministry.

  8. Athanasia says:

    Kyrie Elesion!

    I agree with Allen100%. The other statement I would add to his list of no-no’s is: “This is God’s will for your life.” Uh…no it is not. God is not the author of chaos. He is the author of peace.

    I have a friend who I’ve been journeying with the last 2-1/2 years. She has been abused on every front for her entire life. Yesterday she signed her divorce papers. Someone said, “Where’s your bottle of wine to celebrate?!” I responded, “This is not a celebration. The death of a marriage is a sorrowful time. This is not/was not God’s plan or His will. He’s crying with her.”

    God bless you and strengthen you as you give His strength to others.

  9. Chaplain Mike,

    Speaking as one who recently lost my mother following an extended illness and institutionalization, thank you for what you do on a daily basis–both in your vocational ministry and here at iMonk. May God bless you.

  10. MelissaTheRagamuffin says:

    Well, this isn’t my problem. I only ever met the kid a couple of times. But, a friend of my youngest sister died yesterday – when he was accidently shot by his own father. He was 22 years old, and now his father has to live the rest of his life knowing he caused his own son’s death probably doing something stupid.

  11. Interesting….thanks for sharing!!! My Mom is a pancreatic cancer survivor, I still wonder about that and have spent a lot of time thinking, “What was it that allowed her to live? When it kills most people who deal with it?” Was it the skill of the medical community that treated her? Was it God deciding to extend her life? Was it the prayers of others and myself regularly before I lost my faith?

    What I like about this is that it doesn’t deal with the certainity that so many Christians attest. Life is hard, painful and difficult for everyone from a Christian to an Atheist and everyone in between.

    Thought provoking post….

  12. Chaplain Mike,

    I work in long term care now as an aide while I am in school and I have worked with some very similar situations. While my perspective and involvement is a little different from yours, I have so much respect for your work.

    While this job has been in many ways frustrating and ill suited to my personality (I sometimes struggle with the patience needed… your story of the gentleman with whom you “conversed” is a good example of what I tend to not be good at) it has been invaluable in the sense that it has made me participate with my Lord in His work. My career in healthcare is likely to take a very different trajectory from long term care, but a couple of years of doing this work has given me something I don’t think I could have learned in any other way. My future is likely to be in a hospital where the objective is to “win”… make them better, send them home. There is nothing wrong with that and I can certainly be Jesus to my patients there, but I am glad that I have worked in a place where there is no “win” to be had. It has grated on me, because my natural inclination is toward a faster pace and more aggressive action, but Christ has made me slow down and sit with the lonely and the dying and just be there. Like He does.

  13. Things like this leave me unable to really articulate a response. They make me feel guilty for serving the institutional church rather than the least of these. Jesus never commanded us to spend our time selecting just the right font for the new welcome brochure.

    • They also serve who stand and wait, or in this case, ponder the right font. Trust me on this. I worked in typesetting and graphic design for years. 🙂

    • Athanasia says:

      Frankly Fish, one cannot know the effect, or ‘seed,’ that may be planted by paying close attention to the content and appearance of pamphlets, bulletins and various other communications. As a person who has worked doing the ‘back office’ work in companies as an admin / secretary / blah,blah, a misspelled word or hard to read font has been a decision-maker for me when faced with two excellent choices. I figure, “If they don’t care enough to pay attention to the minimal things, how well will they pay attention to the major things?”

      Keep up the good (God) work.

      Peace to you who serves.

  14. Fish, I don’t think you need to feel guilty. Very few of us reading are having to walk the walk that Chaplain Mike is walking with such hurting people. What is important is to do whatever you do with great love. And you know what? Choosing a font that people can easily read is a GOOD thing. I find it very annoying to try to read such a fancy font that you can barely see the words. And with folks that have blogs where there is such a contrast between the color of the page and the font that it hurts your eyes, I say, “Please don’t do that.”

  15. “I would tell you they have a child in prison, and I could list several other major life-disturbing problems in this family’s life, but you might be tempted to not believe me, or maybe you’re just as drained as I am trying to wrap your mind around all of this pain and chaos.”

    I am at an age when so many of the people I know are primary caregivers for older family members, while dealing with difficult situations with their children at the same time. When the caregiver is trying to do their best for a parent with Alzheimer’s, for example, while their young adult children are serving overseas, or dealing with substance abuse, or marital problems or about to lose their job or home, the stress is overwhelming. In fact, stress becomes a way of life. It is not surprising to me that every person I know in this situation has suffered some degree of physical difficulty.

    One of the best things members of their church community can do is simply listen.

    Don’t think you can solve their situation. In none of the situations I am familiar with is there such a thing as an ideal solution.

    Don’t judge. We can look at a situation and think we would do better. And while we might do one thing better, we would likely do ten things worse.

    Don’t tell them what God wants them to do. That is usually just another way of saying what you think they should do.

    Just be there.

    Just listen.

    If they need to let off steam, let them. We all need a release valve.

    • I just realized that my comment could be misunderstood. This wasn’t a response to the post, but to the tile and what I am seeing in my life.

  16. Thank you for doing what you do.

  17. I’m also at a loss for words in the face of this level of suffering. At the same time, It strikes me that simply our presence as one bearing the love of Jesus and another’s has more impact than we might ever imagine.

    I have plenty of my own problems and health issues, but I ride the bus to work every day with a friend who, with his wife, is the sole caretaker for their severely physically disabled 24-year-old son. It’sa wretched situation on many levels and the stress is almost debilitating for them, but it’s also one of the clearest pictures of sacrificial love that I’ve ever seen. I can’t fix it or make it better. The best gift I can give him is my listening and my presence as an agent of Christ’s kingdom and love. Wherever we find ourselves as believers, God will use us; we are never without purpose.

  18. Chaplain Mike,

    As one who was in this same ministry for many years in the past I wish to say from my heart: all these lives you are present to and touching are truly blessed to have you there with them, loving them.
    May the Holy Spirit continue to fill you with His light and strength.

  19. Chaplain Mike, Do you ever share the concept of uniting their sufferings with that of Christ to make up what is lacking? (Collosians 1:24) Would that be approprated in circumstances where there is no way out and no solution in this life to the sufferings we encounter?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Isn’t that what Catholic practice calls “Offering It Up”?

    • Athanasia says:

      Nothing is lacking in Christ. And what would my measly suffering make up that could possibly be lacking in He who was the Word spoken at Creation?

      In my religious tradition we have a saying, “There is no resurrection without a crucifixion.” Also, “What was intended as a malediction, was in fact, a benediction.”

      Those are my approaches to my personal struggles.

      FWIW, YMMV.

  20. Chaplain Mike,
    Thanks for putting things in perspective.
    Peace.

  21. Thanks for the suggestions on what “not to say!” Are there any ideas for how we can pray with/for families in crisis?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Probably not say anything, just BE THERE for them.

      All too often, “I’ll Pray For You (TM)” is Christianese for doing nothing.

  22. Thank You, Chaplain Mike, for an important post, well presented–which evoked some excellent responses. One…caution, however: You close by asking, “You wanna tell me about ‘your’ problems?” As one who was raised to always compare my problems to those of others, I can tell you that at best comparing problems never addresses (let alone solves) one’s own problems and at worst it can create a sense of guilt for not being grateful enough for your “comparatively” blessed life. And, believe me, when I child is drawn into comparing problems the only thing he takes away is, “my problems are unimportant.” Just a thought–and perhaps just a personal sensitivity. Thanks again.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One…caution, however: You close by asking, “You wanna tell me about ‘your’ problems?”

      I figure Chaplain Mike was just pre-empting some airhead coming up to him after a day like that and getting all bent out of shape over a hangnail or a dent in their car. I’ll tell you if I had a day like Chaplain Mike described here and then ran into someone going all Emo about something trivial inconveniencing them, I’d go postal all over them.

    • You are probably right. I was trying to end with a bit of bemused levity, but I can see how it comes across a bit harsh.

  23. No posting my name on this one says:

    “Oh yes, there are other adult children in the family, some of whom actually live right nearby and could easily give help if they wanted to. They don’t, so they don’t.”

    My wife and I still have living mothers in their 70s and 80s.

    Both have serious illnesses but are in very different situations.

    One accepts the help but complains about it none stop. Basically she’s in a delusional state about her ability to physically care for herself. But her mind is in good shape so she can pay her bills and converse and such. But dealing with her is draining my wife as nothing we do seems appreciated or wanted.

    The other has some severe but manageable medical issues but has stated “I’ll be homeless starving and living in the gutter and still not let my boys know my business”. Extrapolate as you wish about what this means and where it leads and you’ll likely be right about your assumptions. Of course she does call one of us when she has to go to the hospital. But if we go to a judge she will likely be rulled competent to make her own decisions and care for herself.

    Is there a “good” way to deal with such parents. And are you sure the case I quoted above from the post didn’t have some of this in the past. The face our mothers present to non family is very different to the face we see.

    • Of course, there are all different situations, and I could have easily noted one like yours. Every once in a while my social worker friend and I look at each other, roll our eyes, and say, “Family…” That one word covers most of the problems we seem to deal with. Hang in there.

      • No posting my name on this one says:

        Thanks.

        “Family …” Yep that can cover a lot.

        It can just be frustrating at times when folks “not in the know” ask “So how is your mom doing” and we basically give evasive answers. Usually it’s from someone who doesn’t know the details and to them “mom” is just a fine person. I don’t want to be evasive but also don’t want to come across as someone trying to tear down “mom”.

        My wife and I would like to have a normal relationship with our moms but have decided it’s just not going to happen. (And I’m beginning to wonder just how few people has such a normal relationship.) We’ve also told our children (college aged) that if we act like this they can slap us silly until we stop. And plan to make a DVD stating this so they can play it for us as needed.

    • This seems to be very common from what I’ve seen. Since my sister lives nearest to our mother she cares for her on a daily basis. My mother constantly complains about my sister to anyone who will listen. The irony is that my mother spent much of her life looking after elderly people and still talks about how they complained about her to their own children, who were never around. In other words, she received the same treatment that she is now heaping upon her own daughter.

      I think this often comes from their own frustration, combined with some degree of senility. Unfortunately, the main caregiver gets the worst of it.

      This is very difficult and stressful when this person is your own mother and you can barely recognize your mother in her words or behavior.

      But even when it is insanely difficult and frustrating, she does need you.

      I tell my sister to try to hold a special memory of our mother whenever she is frustrated. She is still there, just harder to recognize on occasion.

      • No posting my name on this one says:

        “My mother constantly complains about my sister to anyone who will listen.”

        My wife has 2 other sisters. Her mom is always complaining about the other two to which ever one she is talking to. We’ve had many issues with one sister who doesn’t “get it” and keeps bringing up “Mom said you….” She’s just now beginning to understand that “mom” has issues with her also but just never brings them up. And that most of what this sister hears about isn’t really true unless viewed through a very distorted “mom” lens.

        • “Her mom is always complaining about the other two to which ever one she is talking to.”

          My sisters and I know about that. We are to the point now where we can actually laugh about it.

          My sister asked me to send our mother some clothes because she had lost weight. A few nights after they arrived she said to me, “Somebody brought in a load of clothes but most of it was just terrible.” Then the very next evening she tells me how much she loves the light sweater and had been wearing it every day. The three of us stay in close communication and compare notes. I don’t know how we could stand it, if we didn’t laugh.

      • One thing I forgot as a possibility. Often elderly people take a variety of medications. When they are already declining mentally and then allowed to dose out their own meds, you can get serious personality changes. We have seen this several times. In one case close to our family they knew that Mom was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s but somehow never thought that maybe she shouldn’t be in charge of her medications. So she took what she wanted in whatever dose she wanted. As you can imagine, she was soon behaving like somebody they could not recognize.

        • No posting my name on this one says:

          Not the issue here.

          Part of the problem is that both moms have had personality issues for decades and they hid it until circumstances changed. Now that these issues are “in the open”, “shields are up” and a defense mode has set in.

          Basically both want to be left alone in their misery. Which they deny exists. But at least one let us into her life. We’re just not sure if it’s only from a desperate need or she really wants us there but wants full control and can’t have it.

          Oh, well. The struggle continues.

        • No posting my name on this one says:

          Actually there is one issue we’ve noticed with my wife’s mom. We think she either forgets to drink fluids or just doesn’t want to get up to do it. And a few times some odd behavior seemed to be happening due to dehydration. All denied of course. 🙁

          Chaplain Mike might know more about how common this issue is with elderly.

          • Don’t know the reason why, but I think what they used to call the “generation gap” has become the generation Grand Canyon.

          • Sometimes I see this with my mom. I think when she’s having mobility issues, she doesn’t want to have to go to the bathroom so much, since it’s such an ordeal. So she limits what she drinks. I don’t know if it’s conscious or not.

  24. Chaplain Mike – have you ever read Gordon Atkinson aka reallivepreacher.com and his stint as a baptist hospital chaplain, and how it brought on his trial of faith? Has it ever affected you in a similar way?
    http://www.reallivepreacher.com/rlparchive/preachersstory

  25. Rob Burke says:

    CM-
    I am now certain of why you where handed the reigns of this website.
    It is becoming very pastoral for me.
    Thank you.

  26. Chaplain MIke,
    I don’t know how you do this day after day; God must give you special grace for this job. Thank you for doing it!

  27. God is mysterious, is He not? Why does He allow some to pass through such deep waters?

    Some years ago, before the advent of cell phones, my friend called and asked if I could drive her to her father’s bedside. He was dying of congestive heart failure and was not expected to make it through the day. My friend had been injured in accident and could not drive.

    The trip took several hours. When we arrived at the hospital, her father’s bed was empty and made up with fresh linens. We assumed that he had died before we could get there. We asked a nurse, who said he had been transferred to another room.

    An hour later, he was discharged. The evening before, the doctors had scanned his grossly enlarged heart and had done other tests and had decided he had only hours to live. After we left to go to him, he had suddenly improved and was scanned again. His heart was totally normal. The doctors said he had a different heart in his body, the heart of a young man.

    He was not a follower of Jesus. This event made a profound impression on him and he credited God for his new heart (and our entire church who had been praying for him). He died some years later, from other causes, but never chose to follow Jesus.

    I can’t explain any of this. Why do some people suffer so? Why would God give a new heart to someone who would never choose to follow Him?

    Perhaps, as with Job, God need not give us an explanation. Perhaps we need only trust that He knows what He is doing, whether it be in our own bodies and lives or in the bodies and lives of those around us. Somewhere in our trusting we must remember to love our neighbor as ourselves. That surely must include showing the love of Jesus in tangible ways to those who are suffering, for we too may find ourselves in similar circumstances some day soon.

  28. I have a profound love and respect for Hospice Chaplains. They were there when my Family and I needed them…

    You have added to this, Chaplain Mike. Prayers for you and yours…and the folk God has placed in your path.

    Lord, have mercy.

  29. Chaplain Mike,
    I would like to be involved with people as you are as a chaplain or an assistant. Do you have any good words of guidance for doing that? I am presently working toward an M.A. in Apologetics.

    • Our hospice requires an MDiv with ordination. I recommend taking some Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which is offered through hospitals. If you are serious about becoming a chaplain, CPE will be essential, and the main accrediting process is overseen by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC).

      For experience, you might check with local hospitals and see if they have opportunities for on call rotations or other volunteer opportunities.

      Send me an email if you have more specific questions.