A few days ago, I was caring for a patient who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She had begun chemo for it, but the therapy had weakened her heart and landed her on our unit to recover before resuming treatment.
Her family - a husband and three grown sons - rarely left her side. I asked them to step out into the hall for a small procedure, and as soon as they closed the door, the floodgates opened. The woman began to cry like a small child, her face twisting as if she was in agonizing pain. She was, of course.
"I just don't want them to remember me like this," she told me.
So I asked her what she did want them to remember.
She looked toward the window and gazed through the blinds.
"Our sons and their families took us to the mountains this past summer to celebrate our 50th anniversary. They hosted games and dinners and we had the best time." More tears rolled down her nose and onto her hospital gown.
I wished in that moment I could have promised her something. That visions of her pale grey skin and nausea and chest port would fall from their memories like the whispy hair on her head. I wanted to promise her that this treatment would be curative, not just palliative. I wanted to promise her another trip to the mountains.
But of course I couldn't promise any of that. So I simply sat, rested my hand on her knee, and let my eyes water with hers.
The longer I am a nurse - and a human - the more I understand the gift of just sitting with people in their hurt. In the Bible, when Job's life was ripped to shreds in a matter of days, the first and only thing his three friends did right was to sit on the ground with him for 7 days. They didn't say a word. They simply offered their empathetic presence.
And when Mary and Martha's brother Lazarus died, Jesus himself didn't rush in to fix the situation. Instead, he sat with them in their hurt and he himself wept for his friend. He could have bypassed the hurt and brought Lazarus back to life with a single command (which he later did). But I think there's a lesson for all of us that he chose to sit with his friends and weep.
So I am learning to sit. I am learning that is a much weightier gift than any advice or pleasantries I could utter. And as I choose not to speak, I whisper prayers that the hurting one would be filled with the hope and peace that can only come from Christ.