Talking Carefully About Family
By JIM NICHOLS
Down the hall from my office right now is a colleague and young mother who, along with her husband, just completed the adoption of their third pre-school aged child. As expected, this process has been a complicated one. Because I know this woman and sense her skills and love, I do not doubt that this is a role she will play well.
There certainly is no lack of written material on families and, frankly, I am hesitant to attempt to add another. My hesitancy is that I sense we each tend to see the concept of “family” through the lens of our own personal experiences. Many of us have had rich and overall wonderful family experiences, but that has not occurred for everyone. Specifically, some family experiences are dangerous, insulting, and monstrous. Individuals in such families may not even want to consider their memories. Even at that, however, it seems to me that biologically and spiritually being added to a family is important enough to consider seriously, even though we should tread carefully. My work as a hospice chaplain gave me three examples in a row just this week.
I read once a description of a young student chaplain speaking to a professor trying to answer his question, “What do you do as a chaplain?” Her response was, “I talk to patients.” When pressed to explain, she said, “Mostly I just listen.” He asked, “Do you talk about God?” She responded, “Sometimes. Mostly we talk about their families.”
As the conversation continued, she felt increasingly shallow under the professor’s questioning. “Maybe I am just being too superficial,” she said to herself. “Candy Stripers can talk to patients about their families. Perhaps I should be more religious.”
Now at a more mature age, she has realized that the reason people talk about their families is because that is the seat of love for them. It may be incomplete or difficult love, but that is the first place we experience love or its absence, even if it is painful. Talking about family is to talk about love and talking about love is talking about God. Scripture is clear that God is love. The patient may not sense he or she is speaking about God, but that is the translation.
My first patient of the day was alone because her caretaker son was running an errand; she was capable of being by herself for a short while. She was talkative and friendly. She was ill enough to die within weeks but seemed to be coping with that reality. Did she want to talk about God? Not really. She wanted to speak glowingly of her son’s care for her. Apparently, he, himself, has significant health problems. She said, “He thinks he is taking care of me, and I think I am taking care of him.”
The next patient had just moved to the area from out of state. Already suffering another family loss, she had moved in with a daughter here in a comfortable, but new and different, home. Despite feeling displaced, she seemed calm and flexible surrounded by people who loved her. Plus, she was no longer alone. She had brought some cherished pets with her and, to me, seemed to be basking in being with people who guaranteed her security and care. For believers, God is a God of security and care. Virtually our whole conversation was about her husband’s recent death and their past family background. She also appeared to be anticipating a positive future physically and spiritually.
The final patient was in significant physical distress, but completely alert and verbal. He had been released from the hospital to end his physical life in the house he shares with relatives, and he was effusive about the good care he was receiving from them. “She’s a great cook and I have this really comfortable bed. God is really blessing me.”
Each of these three is in a situation that is extremely difficult. We do not have to use theological words to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. However, if one makes a request such as “Tell me about her,” we will hear inspiring truth. Listening compassionately is a good job description; listening between the lines, one will learn about God.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain