I’ve never had any training in hospital chaplaincy, and I know little about medicine. Like many people, I feel awkward and uncomfortable around suffering. I prefer what I know how to manage, like the classroom where I teach. But when an acquaintance’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, was in a serious bike accident, I didn’t hesitate before agreeing to go and sit with her and her family.
My response to Elizabeth’s need wasn’t measured or thought-out. Rather, it seemed to gush from a natural space in my heart. I found that I could not procrastinate when God was calling me to be an instrument of mercy. Service and love took priority, and suddenly I became involved in a situation that was both difficult and sacred. Perhaps that sudden empathetic response is not surprising. After all, compassion has an imminent invitation about it.
I went to the hospital and Elizabeth’s mother—with deep pain and exhaustion in her eyes—greeted me at the entry to the Pediatric ICU. She brought me to Elizabeth’s hospital room and immediately encouraged me to pray: “Sister, touch her. Talk to her.”
As I approached Elizabeth I realized I had never seen someone so young in such a grave condition. Swollen, pale, and bloody, in her I could still see the face of one of my students; like them, she was a 9th grader. Her eyes were stuck open and completely still. A hospital gown, bandages, tubes, a neck brace, a heart monitor, a ventilator, and several machines I couldn’t identify adorned her disfigured and damaged body.
I introduced myself to Elizabeth and took her bruised hand in mine. She didn’t flinch or react in any way. I tried to pray, lifting up my heart and words to God, hoping for healing for Elizabeth and strength and guidance for her family, for her caregivers, but grief consumed me. Traditional Catholic prayers mumbled from my lips. I began to sob. Later, I left that sad scene aware that heartache had directed my reactions during the visit and wondered whether I was capable of being there for Elizabeth and her family in the way they needed.
At the bequest of her parents, I returned to the hospital each day to pray with Elizabeth. I was honored by the privilege—which I saw as a holy responsibility—and some part of me wondered why her parents trusted me with this charge. I wasn’t sure what my role should be, but I knew I could rely on God for guidance. I wanted to be a neighbor and friend to this family who was hurting, a friendly face from their hometown in a city that was not their home. I know also that, for this family, it mattered that I am a religious sister, a representative of the Catholic Church. Each day, on my elevator ride to the Pediatric ICU, I asked God to use me as an instrument of mercy.
I have some exposure to the theology of suffering—pain is a sacred mystery that God understands, theologians say, for Jesus also intensely suffered. When we suffer, God suffers alongside us. But in the face of Elizabeth’s pain, these pious ideas seemed terrible and far-removed from what I was experiencing every day in her hospital room. Questions emerged in my prayers during my adoration hours at the convent: God, how can you allow people to hurt so much? What is the meaning of all of this? What are we called to do?
Again and again, I reminded myself that my main job was to be a loving presence, a companion to a family journeying through suffering. I believe God was fully present to Elizabeth and her family, providing strength and grace for them whenever there was a frightening prognosis. In the thick of suffering, I tried to act according to God’s constant love when I offered hugs and prayers to the hurting family, when I agonized and cried with them just as I believed Jesus would do. Even though I didn’t understand suffering, I gradually realized that each act of compassion I offered was like an act of prayer.
About 30 days after her accident, Elizabeth gradually woke up. She started to move her eyes and squeeze people’s hands. She played thumb war with her younger sister and cousins. She cracked smiles and laughed at my bad jokes. Drawing on what she had learned before the accident, she started signing “I love you” and tried to make conversation using the sign language alphabet with any dumbfounded person she could. Soon, arrangements were made for her to be transferred to a rehab center for children who have experienced traumatic brain injuries.
The night before her move, I spent the night with Elizabeth while her parents returned home to pack some of her things. While she wavered in and out of sleep, I spent the night in prayer, asking God for healing, hope, and more miracles. I prayed God would bless her family with more comfort and courage. I prayed in gratitude for the blessings in the midst of the painful circumstances.
Companioning Elizabeth and her family through the mystery of suffering began with a simple “yes” when I was called upon. I didn’t know what I was stepping into or how to handle myself. Miracles came gradually and unexpectedly. As I walked with them on this journey, the power of God’s presence and mystery was evident. God was the source of all mercy and healing, and God was making so much good come out of the pain. I was in awe that somehow, my simple “yes” when called upon had allowed me to be part of it all.
Image: Via Wikimedia Commons