The Next Faithful Step

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Non-anxious Presence

A Pastor's Reflection

“Can you take the catheter out of my mother before the mortuary comes to pick up her body?” It is amazing, the things people say to you as a pastor. Things you never imagined in seminary. “Of course I will,” is what I said. “Did you seriously just ask me that?” is what I thought.  To be fair, this happened outside of normal parish ministry. I was working as a chaplain for a hospice care provider at the time; working nights in order to care for families who’s loved ones had died between midnight and eight in the morning. So it wasn’t quite as random as it sounds to be asked something like this. But it still was not what I expected as the chaplain. It was about three o’clock in the morning and the daughter of the woman who had died was at her wits’ end. I had been getting the family to talk about what they were feeling, how hospice had worked for their family, and their mother’s/grandmother’s life as I sat with them, sorting out medications and making notifications and arrangements, in order to get some idea of how the family was doing and how I could be of most help to them. What I learned was that their relationship, and therefore their grief, was complicated. “She was mean and terrible,” the daughter told me at one point. “She didn’t like kids and so never wanted her great-grandchildren around her. She got in a fight once in the nursing home. She pushed down an old man who was blocking her view of the TV.” Clearly there was a lot of anger here. But, like I said, it was complicated. In all of her fairly fierce anger, the daughter had a strong pull to protect her mother and her mother’s dignity. “She would be horrified if she knew she was to be taken out of the house with that thing in her.” I had the nurse on the phone, and she explained to me that the process of taking out the catheter was a very simple one and that her caregiver could do it very easily. I had told the family this and asked if it was something they felt comfortable doing. And that was when they asked it. “Can you take the catheter out before the mortuary comes?” “Of course I will.”

Now I was at my wits’ end. I asked the family to step out of the room while I worked and they readily did, closing the door behind them. I was able to play off my request for privacy as my own participating in preserving the mother’s dignity. They had said she would not have wanted an audience for this. The truth was I had no idea what I was doing, was freaking out, and I didn’t want an audience watching me fumbling around with something I knew nothing about. And so, with the phone lodged between my shoulder and my ear as I received instructions from the nurse and the necessary utensils in my hands, I got to work. It was unpleasant and could have been over much more quickly if in my anxiety I had not kept trying to anticipate the nurse’s directions. But it was soon over. I collected the things and collected myself and went out to tell the daughter that I was finished. Chalk it up to another unique experience. (It wouldn’t remain unique for long.)

This scenario was something of a caricature—rarely would something this exaggeratedly odd happen. But a caricature works by highlighting and bringing attention to certain truths and the exaggeration becomes a strange sort of truth teller. What became clear in my odd middle of the night adventure was that the choices I made had a direct impact on what happened next. Things calmed down after I took the catheter out. The daughter became less frazzled and weepy. The stories the family told changed. I stopped hearing stories where the mother was the villain. There was laughter at her “idiosyncrasies”. And I’m pretty sure I know why. I had walked into a particularly anxious situation. Deaths are always like that. But this one was especially colorful—grief mixed with anger, guilt, and a vague feeling of wanting to make things right that just can’t be righted combined to give this crisis a more complex character. My own anxiety rose to new heights standing in the room with a phone, scissors, and towels. But I learned well before this the value of having someone who is decidedly non-anxious. And in this situation, that non-anxious person was going to have to be me. It is often this way with the pastor. And I say decidedly non-anxious because so often—at least for me—it is just that: a decision. People in a panic rarely need someone to come alongside to panic with them. But I have found over and over again—especially working with families on the night of the death of a loved one—that coming alongside anxious people and embodying non-anxiety (whether you want to call it stability, control, or general okay-ness) is a subtle and welcome gift that a pastoral figure is particularly able to give. Of course it is not the case that I do not feel anxious myself. But I try to embody what the great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich famously heard God speak in one of her visions: All is well and all will be well. I believe Julian’s vision and in crises others need to see it. And so when the panicked, angry, grieving, guilty daughter asks me to take her mother’s catheter out before the mortuary comes to pick up her body, I say “absolutely” and pretend like this is second nature. Sometimes a little fooling can go a long way.

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