By Dr. Peggy Determeyer
Director, Community Bioethics and Aging Center
When I began my training in chaplaincy, I had completed most of my seminary degree requirements, but only a few pastoral care courses addressed the challenges of accompanying people through some of the most difficult times imaginable. As a Chaplain Resident (I trained at The Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center), we were required to be the “on-call” chaplain at night, typically once a week. These were challenging assignments – we carried a pager and needed to respond as quickly as possible to any serious issue, typically, a code (response when a person’s heart stops), death, or other trauma.
As chaplain residents, we had some basic hands-on classes in responding to these crises, but nothing replaces an actual call to someone in crisis. I will admit that I was so scared of saying the wrong thing that I would concentrate on being present and listening to the patient and/or family members. I learned that I could be a sojourner, someone who resides in a place, accompanying those experiencing difficult journeys. In this accident of action, I learned an important lesson: presence with someone is far more important than any words I could use.
In continuing my work as a chaplain and now as the Director of the Community Bioethics and Aging Center (CBAC) at the Hope and Healing Center & Institute, I have done more research on the things people say, and would like to share some of the insights that I have gleaned from two very special people: Dr. Frederick Schmidt, the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL (previously at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, where I studied), and author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times; and Dr. Kate Bowler, associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, and author of Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Both of these experts draw on their experiences to provide some insights on ways to sojourn with someone who is suffering or grieving.
Dr. Schmidt wrote The Dave Test in response to trying to answer questions of suffering and death experienced by friends and his own brother’s diagnosis with glioblastoma, the same brain cancer that killed Senator John McCain. He wanted to know how to care in these extraordinary circumstances. He learned from his brother that some of the platitudes offered by well-meaning people, such as “God has a plan”, that “the best is yet to come,” or that “God is giving you a blessing in disguise” are not helpful.
The Dave Test consists of ten questions, including “Can I give up my broken gods?,” “Can I avoid using stained-glass language?,” “Can I say something that helps?”, Can I grieve with others?”, and “Can I be a friend?” When we consider these types of questions, we also open ourselves to others’ pain. Dr. Schultz notes that when we grieve, “our relationships with one another will endure and find healing.” Perhaps the most important question is addressed as the final question: “Can I be a friend?” In accompanying friends and family on difficult journeys, Dr. Schultz identifies five characteristics that makes someone reliable: “They love freely. They acknowledge their own mortality. They are available – to those in need, to God, and to themselves. They are vulnerable. They speak with candor.” Presence is a powerful tool in accompanying those we love on difficult journeys, and words are not always necessary to convey our care and concern.
Dr. Bowler brings a different perspective through her own encounter with mortality – at the age of 35, this young church historian, married to her high school sweetheart and mother to a young son, is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. As a doctoral student, Dr. Bowler wrote her dissertation (later published in book form) on the prosperity gospel, the “bold central claim that God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.” In her illness, Dr. Bowler found a need to confront this theology, noting that her own view was that “anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way,” but acknowledges, “I don’t believe that anymore.”
In Everything Happens for a Reason, Dr. Bowler addresses some of the challenges that she faces, including some messages with extraordinarily poor suggestions on how to confront her illness as part of her faith journey. She concludes that “at a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus.”
In the appendices to her book, Dr. Bowler shares words to avoid and those to use in becoming a sojourner with someone on a difficult journey. In the first appendix, “Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing a Terrible Time,” she offers eight phrases:
- “Well, at least . . . “
- “In my long life, I’ve learned that . . . “
- “It’s going to get better, I promise.”
- “God needed an angel.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “I’ve done some research, and . . . “
- “When my aunt had cancer . . . “
- “So how are the treatments going? How are you really?”
To counter these unhelpful statements, Dr. Bowler offers a second set of comments, entitling the appendix, “Give This a Go, See How It Works:”
- “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?”
- “You are a beautiful person.”
- “I am so grateful to hear about how you’re doing and just know that I’m on your team.”
- “Can I give you a hug?”
- “Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.”
As I shared in the opening, that last one has turned out to be my personal favorite. Sometimes people want to talk and share, at other times, not so much. Be willing to be that companion. Showing your love and concern does not always need words, just presence.
Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. New York: Random House, 2018.
Schmidt, Frederick. The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013.