Julia's story: Engaging in the questions
Excerpted from a commencement address
Fairview's Clinical Pastoral Education program
I stand here with a profound sense of gratitude—for the supervisors and clinical coordinators who have challenged us to come to terms with the limitations of our role, our fear of dying, our residual grief from past hurts and our broken but well-meaning families. They bless us with the gift of time and critique.
I remember after a lengthy defense of many of my personal flaws, a CPE supervisor said to me, “You know rarely, if ever, in life will people take the time or care enough to challenge you like this.” Even as I shuddered at the mirror placed in front of me, I knew she was right. In what other venue are we encouraged to share our weakness, pain, doubt and fear—knowing it will be heard without judgment?
Our supervisors, clinical coordinators, and fellow students care enough about the person we are becoming—and the ministry we are joining—to challenge us. They know that if we embark on the sometimes painful, often joyous work of integrating our personal growth and pastoral care, we will emerge with greater humility and provide more compassionate care for the patients, families and clients we serve.
Treading on sacred ground
I stand here grateful for every patient and loved one who allowed me the privilege of walking with them through illness, loss of independence, crisis of faith, renewed hope and restored identity. We could not be a part of this life-giving work if patients and loved ones did not risk sharing and allow us to mourn with them when they mourn, and rejoice with them when they rejoice. I believe we are treading on sacred ground when people invite us into the beautiful messiness of their lives and, like you all, it is not a role or responsibility I take lightly.
I am grateful for the humility and openness of an elderly patient dying of cancer who wept as he told me of the affair his wife had while he was fighting in World War II. He had not spoken of it to a single soul for over 50 years. Though his wife had already passed away, he was struck by his need to forgive her and perhaps his even greater need to be known and comforted by another.
I am grateful to the patients who have asked us to be with them in their dying, for the family member that looked to me and said, “What do we do now?”, for the sister who shook her dead brother and yelled at him for leaving her, for the father who received a new liver and reflected that God gave him life so he could pour his life into people living with Down syndrome.
I am grateful to listen and engage the questions asked boldly to us in this work, “After so many prayers, why is God taking away my 12-year-old?” “Why did my husband leave me?” “Can we pray for the family of my donor who died in a car accident?” “What kind of life should I live now that I’ve been made well?” “How can I die with honor?” “Do you think there is a reason I survived this suicide attempt?” “How do I forgive my mom for abandoning me?” “Who will take care of my wife when I’m gone?” “Where was God in the midst of my abuse?” “Is it okay to remove life support?” “Will you say a prayer of thanksgiving for my doctor, who gave me my life back?”
Honoring our patients
CPE teaches us to honor our patients in their struggle and not to rush in and fix or rescue, not that we could if we tried. As we work through our own struggles and explore what gives us meaning and value, we can affirm and celebrate with patients as they do the same. As a result of doing this work I have learned to trust God more—seeing firsthand that God loves and cares for people in their suffering more than I could ask or imagine; that, quite apart from me, God is working beautifully and creatively in the lives of the patients and families I’m blessed to encounter. I have bared witness to their strength, ingenuity and courage in the face of illness and lengthy rehabilitation I don’t know I could face myself.
I am grateful to the administrators, board members and financial donors—many of whom I will never meet—who see value in tending to the emotional and spiritual needs of our patients and ourselves. They have blessed me with one of the most significant years of my life, and in turn, given hundreds of patients the chance to tell their story and be truly heard.