When we ask the question “How Can I Help You?” we open ourselves to feelings and questions which can only be answered in the encounter that lies ahead. With each patient we see and help we are enabling ourselves to identify with them, learn through their illness and suffering what it means to be a helper. Helpers must find ways to help themselves to overcome the exhaustion and despair that may arise from helping. One way is to realize that as we are sent to help we must identify ways to overcome the burden of being a helper.
Key Words: Caregiver, Chaplaincy, Helper, Ministry, Suffering, Spiritual Care,
The most important lessons identified with the question “How Can I Help You?” are also major themes that are present in my pastoral care ministry. My current context of ministry allows me the privilege to ask the question “How Can I Help You” and feel equally honored and humbled to help patients and families with complex physiological, psychological and spiritual issues.
My dilemma however has always been to balance helping others and the impact that helping has on me. The theologically logical aspect would be the confidence of Paul’s words in II Corinthians 1:4 (NIV) “…by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted by God who comforts us in all our tribulations, we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble.” My inner thoughts always revert to “who can help me as my hair turns gray and my skin is bronzed and wearied by the sun?” I trust that when I arrive in my stations in life that my helper and comforter has been waiting for some time for my arrival to help me.
I trust also that I will reap the harvest of “help” and kindness that I have shown toward others. Complexities constantly remind us and warn us that there is a danger in giving too much of ourselves as helpers. Time and not enough are factors yet I proudly make reference that it is my nature to help. At times I don’t have the resources or the time, but to help others is irresistible to me.
Many times I have been in situations and the question in my mind at the end of the visit is who has helped who. The patient offers a sincere “thank you” and I in turn speak back to them, “no, thank you.” In the moment I am trying to convey that the time I spent with them has helped me. As I have sat and looked into their eyes I am reminded of the decisions that I will make or am making concerning my own life.
Being in the presence of the helped allows me to think ahead of my own impending needs and need to be helped. The time I observed the interaction of a terminally ill father and his caring son reminds me of the richness of care that I yearn for. It reminds me as I leave their room to stop long enough to examine my surroundings and where my help comes from. When helping, I observe the condition of the person I am attempting to help and I find the richness of the encounter with them. As the son sits with his terminally ill father, I have to adapt to the needs of the person I am helping. Their needs become prevalent and the atmosphere will be charged with what they do or do not desire from me in the moment. If observe and listen to their needs I will adjust quickly as one adjusts to the brilliance of the sun and find the reward for helping. I forget about myself and my needs momentarily, which later may be a source of physical and mental exhaustion. At this point I am reminded that I should stop and lift my heart, mind and soul toward God. It is at these moments that I learn God is helping them and God helps me.
Since helping has a distinct place in my life, I have learned that the goal is not to rid myself of the discomfort and suffering of others but to find ways for joy and suffering to juxtapose. Joy and suffering seem as though they alternate moments in the life of the patient. At times their suffering and pain are present and I have to resist trying to ignore their suffering and try to make them feel better. In times of suffering I have found that they will take a moment and interject a thought, verbal word or talk of a time in their life when they have found times of joy. When present with the patient an author reminds me (Dass and Gorman 1985) that we are to witness to/and find tranquility in observance of the lessons for our ministry while helping.
At the baptism of an infant or the quiet cessation of their beating heart I have found power to endure the suffering that the parents are going through. It is more therapeutic for me to not have words or actions when the suffering meets the sacredness of the dying room. Suffering does not complete its work until it is ready and I nor the patient or staff present can do anything to stop it. This allows me to bring back to the forefront of my mind the power of observation in walks through the neonatal area where there are nurses and doctors’ attending babies yet no one is in control of final outcomes. I have observed the small figure laying in the incubator struggling to live. So it is with adults who struggle in their illness to remain present and give me in a short period of time a definitive glimpse of their life and character.
The power of helping reminds me to move further and further away from result(s) driven therapy and care. I am not to be so driven as to find solutions that enable me to add to my list of successes patients who have recovered from their illnesses. I focus on allowing the type of help that takes both the patient and me on a journey. I begin to walk with individual patients on a journey that may or may not have a nice ending. I am trying very hard to journey in such a way that the issues of others and (silently thinking) my own become waves that sometimes overtake us and at other times they break at us. I believe the suffering I have encountered through them; which I have been unable to prevent has come in waves. With each wave I have learned remain present and to journey through with them to the other side of the wave and realize it was not high enough to overtake me. God has promised Jeremiah 23:11 (NIV)”…thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end”. Whether I see the end of the suffering, illness, pain or not it is the invisible or unconceivable ending that I know not of. The end can only come with time.
Finally, I spent time with a patient, a thirty year-old female who in spite of deep conversation and listening to her life’s story was determined to save herself through death. The mental pain and anguish that she was feeling I could not describe. She mentioned how sunshine (unbelievable as it was to me) “compounded her pain.” I was helpless and I believed somehow the conversation we held would make a difference. I knew there was a possibility she would try to take her life again but she was being released from the unit based upon her own words that during her stay she was helped. The young woman who according to friends and family, had such promise for success in the educational track she was in; could only see the pain in her life. One week later she took her own life which was a source of great pain for me. She forced me through our visit and her actions to walk with her “a piece of the way home.”
After examining what went on with my helping her and replaying our conversation over again with my mentor, I realized she helped me to come to grips with important points for my helping ministry. I have this great desire to help, helping is irresistible and I am only human. Lessons such as these will come as long as I am in the helping arena. I have found joy and pain, gratitude, reward, disappointment, illusions, hope, fear and resolve that I am doing what I have bee, called to do, help.