My husband and I recently suffered a family loss. It was difficult, of course, as these things always are, but as a chaplain I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are loving, understanding, and patient with grief. I was able to take some time to heal and when I came back I found myself nervous. Grief has a funny way of popping up when we least expect it, and I had found myself getting teary at the strangest things because of it. As a spiritual and emotional caregiver, one of the things we are always conscious of is transference, or conflating your patient's pain with your own. This is problematic both for the patients and the caregivers for obvious reasons, so it figures that within three weeks of returning to work I found myself sitting across the room from a patient who had just gone through almost the same thing I had.
Ordinarily, I would never disclose such a fresh loss to a patient, but this patient's pain was so raw, and she looked at me and asked if her grief was normal. She said her friends and family didn't understand, but I did. I did because I had found myself somewhere further along in my healing process, but with a fresh enough memory that I knew that, if not normal, she seemed to be experiencing something similar to what I had experienced. So I did it. I told her of my loss. It's a frightening thing to wonder if you're doing the right thing or not, and to have that moment of pause. She looked at me and burst into tears, and my heart pounded because I was thinking, “Oh boy, now she's crying for both of us and that's not what I wanted!” I told her I'm doing fine and don't want this to be about me, and she interrupted me and sobbed: “It feels so good knowing somebody else understands!” She said she was sorry for my loss, and she thanked me. She thanked me for sharing my pain, my wound, and I felt a gentle warmth, like perhaps my hurt was not completely without purpose after all.
We can hardly live without collecting bumps and bruises along the way. To open the heart is to risk it: to fall in love is to risk rejection, to have a child is to risk all the pain of rebellion and the fears of loss or estrangement, and even learning a new skill risks failure and raising all of those hard questions about ourselves we don't want to face. Probably none of us make it to adulthood without some kind of loss, trauma, insecurity, or hurt, and we bring that story, that self with us when we walk into a patient room and listen to their story, their hurt. Whether it's physical illness, or emotional/spiritual turmoil, these things touch us. They remind of us those things in us, and they sometimes cut a little too close to the bone for comfort. At the same time, those old scars and even some of the fresher wounds create an opportunity for connection. It's not professional or advised to walk around with our hearts on our sleeves all the time, but neither can we close our hearts to the hurts we encounter as we journey with our patients.
Henri Nouwen writes: “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” How can we be healers if we can't get in touch with the experiences of our illnesses, struggles, grief, and rough edges? How can you understand how to hope against all hope, to hope even when the prognosis is grim, to find something to hold to as you take your dying breath, if never you have walked that valley of the shadow of death in some small way? We can't, and it's silly to try because we bring those things with us every step of the way. We all have hearts able to be, as theologian Parker Palmer says, not just broken, but broken open in order to hold the broken hearted before us and walk with them toward healing.
This visit with the woman whose loss was so close to my own reminded me of this simple caregiving strategy, which bears so much healing fruit, and that is to care from your broken heart. Take care of your heart, of course, but don't be afraid to be truly touched by the wounds of another. My own personal life philosophy is that it is in our weakness that we are made strong, and so I invite and encourage you to be weak. Be open to really listening to the many hurts you encounter in these walls today. Let your hurts and scars and the victory of having carried on be a beacon of hope to those who have not yet learned they can survive their hurts. And know that in baring your heart in this beautiful, holy vulnerability you invite healing for them, and for you.