In this blog Kate Bradford shares some very hard lessons she has learnt in pastoral care. You can read a fuller account at Blogging Chaplains where Kate gives a number of references for books that have guided her thinking. If the issues raised in this blog cause you to revisit some pain in your life, please seek pastoral counsel.

Early in my time, ministering as paediatric chaplain I was called to attend to the withdrawal of life support to a baby a few weeks old. The baby looked perfect in every way but he had an in-operable genetic condition. I felt nervous and inexperienced.  

I prayed with the parents acknowledging the deep sorrow and pain of the situation, praying that they may know God’s comfort as they and their little son, pass through this deep, dark valley of the shadow of death. On that cold winter’s morning, together we asked Jesus in his mercy to prepare to receive this little child today into to his eternal care. At the moment the monitors ceased to register any vital signs of earthly life, the father left the room.

I stayed with the mother as a nurse gently removed intubation tubing and canulas, gently placing Pooh Bear plasters over wounds where tubes and lines had been removed. The baby was clothed in a baby jumpsuit and placed in his mother’s arms. The nurse left. 

The mother cradled her baby, weeping noiselessly. We sat together in the silence. After an interval she asked me, ‘Have you ever seen a dead baby before?’ I thought for a moment and answered, ‘Not in this hospital, but in another on the other side of the world.’ ‘Where?’ she asked. ‘A rural hospital in Africa,’ I replied.

The mother asked simply, ‘What would they do in Africa? What would it be like there?’ I explained that the room would be filled with women all sitting on the ground with shawls and scarves covering their heads, some women would wail, but most would be murmuring – weeping for you and crying out to God softly. Every one of those women would be with you in your loss.’ We fell into silence.
After a time she replied, ‘I think I would have liked that.’ 

Sometime later I was leaving the room as the husband entered. As we passed each other at the door he asked me directly, ‘How does a good God allow this to happen?’ I replied without thinking, ‘We live in a very fallen and broken world.’ He glanced at me with incomprehension and walked past me into the room.

I walked back to my office. 

Thus a journey had begun. How had I got it so right and then immediately, so wrong? I had spoken truths to both parents, one had been comforted yet the other, utterly bewildered. It became clear to me that truth and timing were intimately related. The right thing said at the wrong time, was not half right – it was wrong.   I started to search for answers. I read a number of books and spent a lot of time looking at Wisdom Literature and The Writings in the Bible observing the way in which they dealt with life as it was not as it might, or should be. I discovered that Wisdom is interested in the real not the ideal. I discovered that words that speak truth about God but don’t connect with a person’s pain are not only unhelpful but destructive. 

When I sat with the mother, there were silences and accompaniment. I listened and responded appropriately as I shared the memory of the African women. I offered a picture of a community who had come to help bear the pain, the extended fellowship and companionship and time together with honoured rituals of mourning and lament. The image had connected the grieving mother to others who grieved far beyond the room in which we sat, there was a world beyond this incomprehensible tragedy – we shared in a glimmer of love and a fragment of hope.

In my brief exchange with the father, I did not hear his existential cry of pain, ‘why have we been forsaken?’  I had naively and thoughtlessly offered a defence of God, a justification for the baby’s death, –the world was a fallen place– but it was this man’s son who had died, his, not someone else’s. I had offered nothing but cold comfort. 

I have recently read John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, (2007). I wish I had discovered this book many years ago. The first half of the book addresses each of these issues from a deeply pastoral perspective; the subjects are dealt with sensitively, with accompanying descriptions of a number of pastoral encounters to illuminate the ideas.

In Raging with Compassion Swinton leads us not towards the cold comfort of glib theological answers but rather towards warm silence of a friend who listens, and then towards lament – Godward prayers of anguish. For Swinton wholeness is found in Christ. As we listen in silence and accompany people through their valleys of the shadow of death, we lament with people in their grief, exercising thoughtfulness. Over time we host a space where forgiveness may be found, we share hospitality and friendship, sharing the hope of Christ in both word and deed.

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