Why Listening Can Be a Gift

How I ended up working as a hospice chaplain is still a bit of a mystery to me.

When I let go of my plans to attend law school after college and instead traveled from California to New Jersey to attend a seminary, I had visions of teaching, writing, and headlining speaking tours. One of my favorite authors, Susan Howatch, wrote a book about a Catholic priest called Glamorous Powers, and I was sure that my glamorous powers were wrapped up in the quality, the insight, and the impact of my words. My first job after school landed me behind a pulpit, and everything was going according to plan. I stood up in front of a congregation every Sunday, and I talked real good.

In order to get ordained as a minister, I had to intern as a chaplain at a local hospital. Believe me, I put it off. My gifts were in preaching and teaching; what was the point of me visiting patients in hospital rooms? In other words, I was terrified. I think even then I suspected that the cloak of insight I wore was merely shabby protection from the realities of fragile human life. I am grateful that my glamorous ambitions to ordination prevailed back then because they led me into a season of life that would destroy those ambitions forever.

During the autumn of 2003, I sat with patients in the oncology wing of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California, and I did, well, nothing. At least it felt like nothing at the time; I thought I only contributed to situations when I spoke, and those afternoons with cancer patients left me mute. The power of our words has a way of fading when we sit by the bedside of those suffering post-chemotherapy. That deep insight we could offer falls flat when we’re with young children saying goodbye to their dying mother, while her utterly lost husband sits in the corner.

Whenever people ask me what in the world led me to become a full-time hospice chaplain, I tell them one particular story from that internship. It was my first Saturday on-call, which meant I was the only available chaplain in the hospital. I sat in the chaplain’s office, my breathing shallow, my ears tuned to the loudspeaker waiting for someone to announce “Code Blue.” If that happened, I was to hurry to the location of the code, find the patient’s family, and offer emotional and spiritual support. I wondered who would offer support when the nurse called a Code Blue for the chaplain who passed out in the waiting room of the ER.

In the mid-afternoon, the call came. I was summoned to the ICU to be with a large Hispanic family who were losing their patriarch. I nervously pushed the curtain to the side and introduced myself to the family. They all made eye contact with me. One woman by the bed gently nodded but no one stirred beyond that. I asked a couple of awkward questions, which received equally awkward three-word responses, and then I went silent.

I stood by the curtain, my hands clasped in front of me in some kind of a chaplain-like prayer gesture, for what felt like an hour. In reality, only ten minutes had passed. We watched the patient’s chest move up and down … until it stopped. I stayed with the family as they wept for a few more minutes, offered a brief condolence, and escaped.

I fell onto the couch in the chaplain’s office. I had failed. I had done nothing to comfort the family, said nothing to ease their pain. I questioned my calling to ministry and my adequacy for the job. I considered resigning. Maybe it wasn’t too late to go to law school.

The next week I received a card from the wife of the patient who died. It read, “Thank you for being with us in our time of grief. You are part of our family now.”

In the days prior, I had wondered whether my perceived failure had been the result of a language barrier between myself and a Spanish-speaking family. It turns out that the sacred moment of a loved one’s death is just not a time for language.

That afternoon would be the first of hundreds of times I would sit quietly with a grieving family and watch someone they love stop breathing. Three years later, I surprised everyone I know by accepting a position as a hospice chaplain, and I served in that capacity for 5 years.

The address for this website is QuietRev.com, and “Quiet Rev” could easily have been my nickname during those years. I had learned that it is in quiet that we honor the sacred and painful moments of life. I had learned that presence is more than speaking, and that words can be barriers that separate us from others and from entering the moment we are currently living.

 

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  • Tiago Magalhães

    This is quite uncommon for me, to go online and share my thoughts, but your words definitely had an impact on me. I have always enjoyed being silently present, nevertheless I have always struggled with the feelings that come with the idea that I should say something, specially in times like these, when others need our support, being it friends, family or just someone looking for some comfort. As a clinical psychologist graduate student who is just getting ready to start his internship words and silences do mean a lot, and your words certainly made me take a closer at myself and realise that being comfortable while listening to someone or just “being there” may be valuable assets for both my future work as well as my life. Very inspiring, thank you

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  • Heather

    I liked this post a lot, Adam. In moments of grief, too often I am wracked with wondering whether or not I am saying enough to those aching or if what I am saying is the “right” sentiment. I forget that sometimes simply being there and listening can touch people just as much, if not more, than speaking can. Thank you for the reminder again that being present is a gentle strength of its own.

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  • Catherine Novachek Schwartz

    Beautiful story. The family that let you know your presence was appreciated really extended the blessing of your gifts to all the others you helped later in hospice. Real listening and quiet caring about others often go unnoticed and unrewarded, but their positive impact is irrefutable.

  • Angus Mayer

    Listening, acknowledgement and attention are formidable forces that we are sometimes unaware of, collecting somebody else’s experience and letting them know: this matters

  • Anup

    Beautiful article:-) What you do cannot be measured but its invaluable.

  • Karen Meyer Roth

    Hi Adam, I’m a Stephen Minister at our Presbyterian Church in NJ. It was my turn to share a devotional at our supervision meeting tonight, and I read your essay. My group enjoyed it very much, it really resonated with us.We joke that our ministry is the Ministry About Nothing because we spend much of our time just listening to our care receivers. But mostly that is all our care receivers need, is someone to listen without judging.

  • NemesisBastet

    Very important to be present… just listen… just be…

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  • Bill Plunk

    This post made me think about how much God listens, as compared to how much He speaks. Aren’t you following his lead, Adam? Now wondering if we all shouldn’t do the same.

  • Sharon Krueger

    I am not one to usually enter into discussion boards, but as a fellow introvert, your story struck a chord with me. I have more times than not declined from going to the hospital or made my presence available to those who are suffering for fear of not having the right words to say and suffering through the long periods of silence. I have felt that same sense of failure you experienced, and was touched by the letter you received from that family who appreciated your quiet, yet needed presence. It is in those times that a simple word of encouragement can provide the wind in our sails that propels us forward. Thanks for sharing your story as it is a reminder to me that a quiet presence is sometimes the only thing that is needed at the moment, and introverts do that so well.

  • Stephanie

    You’ve absolutely nailed it. People don’t always need words; sometimes they just need someone to be there.

  • Ray Doraymefa

    I revere both the depth and the wit in this writing. Surely, humor (especially self-deprecating humor) is a valid coping mechanism, one that is too often overlooked and unfairly criticized.

    Hats off to anyone connected with hospice, as, I know, my family has benefitted from your presence. And it is your presence and attention I remember; I can’t seem to recall the words spoken.