While serving as a chaplain at an inner-city hospital in Dallas, Texas, I was required to make contact with as many patients as possible. The areas with which I was charged were the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and the antepartum and postpartum units—the maternity areas, for better or for worse. Too often for worse.
As a pastor still very much in training, I had not yet stopped feeling a bit trepidatious about walking into the room of a total stranger whose religious beliefs I did not know. This was quite different from the cold calls I used to make as a financial advisor. I remember those first few timid knocks accompanied by, “H . . . hello? Chaplain here. Can I come in?” I did not know what to expect. Would they call security or what? Imagine knocking on some stranger’s bedroom door, “Chaplain here, coming in.”
But whether it was a joyful mother with child and family or a bereft and lonely woman suffering the unimaginable, I was always welcomed in. Happy families always accepted a blessing for the new baby. Grieving families never turned down a listening ear and a prayer of comfort. In fact, during the whole summer I spent at the hospital, visiting twenty to thirty patients a day, I was never turned down for prayer.
Something about being in a hospital opens a person up to prayer.
I remember my first encounter with a husband and wife who had lost a child. The administrative assistant of pastoral care handed me a short note: “Fetal demise. Spanish only. Room 723.” I had spent one week in training, shadowing an experienced mentor. Why was she not handling this one? She was out for the week.
I called a translator, and she met me outside the patient’s room. I briefly described the scenario. We both gulped and took a deep breath. She knew her role: translate, although most of what had happened needed no translation. Did I understand my role, a man standing between God and a couple in deep mourning? I felt greatly inadequate.
We entered. I kind of pushed the translator in front of me. After all, some explanation of why I was there was needed. Not a doctor, not a nurse, but a chaplain. They send doctors to patients who can be fixed. They send chaplains in for the rest. Chaplains say, “I’m sorry.”
I will never forget the eyes of the helpless husband—big, scared eyes. His wife’s face was ashen with grief, her eyes cast downward. He explained to me that this was their third lost child. He was afraid that this was too much for his wife.
The translator’s job was no easier. She had to repeat a difficult story of infant death. Possibly one she had heard before or even experienced herself.
It quickly became clear that no words of consolation or advice would be even remotely helpful or appropriate. What could I possibly tell this couple about how to cope and move on from this?
I offered the only thing I had, prayer. The husband’s eyes lit up as if to say, “Yes! That’s what we need! Please!” We all joined hands, including the translator, as I lifted up the couple’s pain to the Lord. The woman was in tears. Her first tears. She began to talk now and make eye contact. The healing had begun.
It was as if the prayer had turned on a light.
As I was leaving, the husband walked after me and, in broken English, thanked me and asked if I would come back to pray with them the next day.
I had always known on some level that prayer is important, but on that day I learned how much people really need it. It was not that the couple needed my words or my presence. It was God’s presence they had so desperately needed. At times in our lives, God seems so absent or so far away that we need a person in the flesh to represent his presence. Prayer encounters our grief, our desperation, our inadequacies, all our hurts and wants.
As I look on from afar at the community of Newtown, I feel so helpless to help. Perhaps you do to. Pray.
Pray to the source of true and real help. It is the most powerful thing you can do at this time. And trust that God’s promise to comfort those who grieve is good.