Giving people vocabulary for their pain

When I walk into a hospital room, I don’t talk about what I’ve been through. I don’t lead with my resume of pain.

I listen. I ask. I wait. I watch.

But sometimes after I’ve listened, with deliberate intention I tell stories of my pain and the pain of my friends.

Sometimes it helps.

I never approach it with a sense of “I know how you feel.” Mature helpers know better than that. (And I sometimes warn grieving families about the awkward words of well-meaning but misguided friends.) But sometimes it helps for me to share in an “I have walked through pain” way.

I don’t believe in comparative pain, by the way. I’m not comfortable with statements like, “But they are much worse off than I am.” It can lead us to pity others and to not face our own pain with honesty.

But I think that sometimes sharing our story offers a journey (though not a roadmap). Shared stories offer vocabularies of how to speak about the unspeakable shocks we experience when we watch a loved one die. Shared stories give us a quiet space to stand as we share our uniquely common pain.

I’m building my vocabulary of stories. Before I started as a chaplain, the death of my father and my mother-in-law and our daughter, my mother’s Alzheimer’s, and some other challenges were journeys I could offer to those who wondered what to do in a moment of crushing loss. I’m adding images every time I walk into the hospital and watch individuals and friends and staff struggle and find a way to take the next breath. Or not.

As a writer, I would love to pull this essay together smoothly, with a clear application and a smile. But as a chaplain, I know that’s not how it is as families walk out of a room for the last time, wishing they didn’t have to update their resume of pain.



Before You Walk In Copyright © 2021 by Jon Charles Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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