Monday, October 17, 2011

Pastoral Care ~ Musings

I've entitled this post Pastoral Care because I'm in a sort of dialogue with Mary Potts about pastoral care in times of catastrophic loss, but it might more aptly be titled Spiritual Companionship.

Mary observes that the accompaniment of a prayerful friend might have made a significant difference in her own healing process.

I can vouch for that.  I don't think that it's an exaggeration to credit my own life to my spiritual director who, in retrospect, seems to have made up his mind that not only would I not die, but I would again know God's presence in my life.

I don't know why it should be so, but sometimes loss brings with it a deep sense of reassurance and confidence in the ever-present and loving God, and sometimes it pierces the soul with a razor-like precision, excising all sense of divine presence and care.

I was hesitant to articulate that latter experience for a long time, at least in public.  I was back in seminary within a few months of Josh's death, surrounded by people who either avoided me or offered thoughtless platitudes, which I think must have been intended primarily to reassure themselves.  Of what, I have no idea.  Their children were alive. (And so I would say to Mary that a stack of theological degrees guarantees nothing about an individual's comprehension of loss or capacity to be present to it.) 

I am not sure that many people comprehend or appreciate the disintegration of faith that can accompany the loss of a child.  I think that most people who walk that road themselves don't speak of it; they simply disappear from places of worship and they don't raise the subject with their friends. It comes up only in safe places, hidden from public view ~ as it did at one of the first Survivors of Suicide meetings I attended, where a gentleman said to me, "I'm surprised that you still believe in God."  I can't say that I've met many people at those meetings who do.

A pastoral caregiver represents not so much belief in God as a continued hand extended as a representation of God's offer of friendship.  Perhaps if those who are in a position to make such a representation understood its profound significance, they would show up and sit down ~ and wait.


  1. Many years ago, when I just beginning to think about a call and seminary, I had colleague say to me that she no longer believed in God because God never answered her prayers and never gave her what she prayed for. She wanted to know why God was like this. I was too young in my own formation to have a response...but in many ways this questions remains as the background of my formation. Finding the stamina to just be, to wait, to hang in there, is often made possible when others are willing to BE with us.

  2. I wish we could have a panel discussion about this, I really do! It's something that you might be called to teach, Robin (just as I feel called to teach medical residents about family-centered care).

    I suspect that a great deal of our disappointment in God stems from our pre-conceptions about who He is and how He behaves, many of which are due to religious concepts, not necessarily Biblical. If I really read the Bible with an open mind, I see that terrible things happen to God's people throughout history. That's part of life! But He is present in love throughout it all.

    I think a lot of religion is "talked" by people who have not entered their own suffering, let alone anyone else's. If we haven't done our own grief work about whatever has hurt us in our own life, it will be hard to be present to someone else's pain - it will likely bring our own pain sharply to the surface, and then we have a double-barreled grief experience. This can be overwhelming (speaking from experience).

    Surviving the death of a child can call everything about the divine Parent into question. I have found my faith radically refined, yet my relationship with God is a gift which I treasure. It is intact, yet greatly changed. Thank you for giving us a forum to discuss this!

  3. Thanks for inviting me over to read this. My experiences in pastoral care to date, both in and out of CPE, continue to convince me that "sit down, shut up and BE thee" is most often exactly what I need to do. I am very grateful that my CPE program/supervisor is all about helping us figure out what it is that gets in the way of our doing that.

  4. This has been my role. As friend, companion, fellow traveler. It is a calling. It's also hard to talk about because I never want to appear as if I'm taking someone else's drama or trauma and making it my own. I have my own space, my own place, my own perspective, my own purpose. Companion.

    It is often a silent calling. Not that I have been silent with my suffering friends. We talk. Laugh. Cry. But the consciousness of my place by her side is something of an inner knowing.

    Often it is a decision made in a moment of prayer and meditation. And It looks very much like something "that just happens." But choosing to remain close after everyone else has gone, to continue to call, go to lunch, be present, to talk about her child, to remember birthdays and other events, to pray for them and to let them know they are remembered and prayed for...these are conscious acts. And to be honest they are supported by God's strength, not human will.

    I would never trade this experience for anything. I feel deeply for my friends who have lost a child. I mourn the loss of potential, of life, of enjoyment and it doesn't ever get "easier."

    But there is a grace in knowing that I can be of service to God in the ongoing human existence of someone.

    And to simply be there.

  5. SO much a calling, Cindy.

    Yesterday morning a friend offered some advice about my current medical dilemma. Advice, not presence. His situation is not mine, he knows little about mine, he barely knows me, and yet he felt compelled to intrude in a way that feels as if a cold stone has been tossed into my heart. He meant well, but I feel as if I have been set back a week. I am trying to respond out of hope rather than fear, and what I was offered was an approach of fear. And now I have to devote much-needed energy to overcoming that.

    So, yes: presence - not, as Kate describes a common problem, getting in the way.

  6. Robin, I appreciate the generous time and space in your personal blog to recount my experiences and ensuing disappointment due to the lack of support when our world caved in. I've gained insight through the comments of others, and I wholeheartedly agree with your statement about a stack of theological degrees having nothing to do with the understanding of loss or one's ability to be present with the suffering.

    A part of me is still numb and doesn't have the energy to seek out help. I pray and meditate on my own. I keep hoping someone will throw the lifeline and just "be there". It's 22 months today. I'm still counting the time in months... and on days like this I'd rather lie on the couch than head out the door to work.

    If you or anyone can suggest specific prayers, readings, books... I would be grateful. Karen is right, this could be a calling for you.

  7. Mary, I do have some specific ideas for you, and I'll try to write a more general post soon.

  8. Robin - I posted this book to you at CaringBridge but I'm going to recommend it here too.

    Marion Woodman wrote a book called "Bone" which is a sharing of her journals as she walked through a 2 year dance with cancer. She is an amazing woman, who embodies presence and consciousness in ways I can only dream of. I think these writings would be inspirational for anyone - whether you are dealing with grief, illness, or as a companion to someone who is.

    Near the end she includes a copy of a letter she wrote to one of her doctors. Whenever I feel I can't find my voice I re-read that letter. She is clear, kind but very sure. She expresses the real sense of intrusion that his pessimism brings into her cells. She stands up for herself in a way I hope to do for my own dear, quivering afraid self.

    This is the essence of your blog, Robin. It provides a container for us to cook our thoughts and experiences, so that we can use them for sustenance and nourishment.

    Sending you a hug.

  9. Robin, I didn't know you set up your CaringBridge site. Please email the link to me at when you have a moment.