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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - We are Family Edition

It is not unusual to hear pastors ask, "Who is pastor to the pastor?" Our question today is a bit different - how are we, or are we to provide pastoral care for our family members?

Dear Matriarchs:
My aunt, who lives in a local nursing home, is nearing the end of her time here on earth; that may be tomorrow or next week or next month or longer, but it's coming. I'm pretty much her only close relative left. She was never a regular churchgoer, for a variety of reasons, and is rather reticent to talk about her faith in all but the broadest, briefest ways, but she is a person of faith who has been open to chaplain visits and religious services at her care facility.

I am finding it nigh unto impossible, emotionally, to provide any sort of spiritual care for her other than to ask her if she'd enjoy a visit from my own pastor and to ask her if there's anything else I can do for her. And this discomfort bothers me, as a lay minister who, if asked to provide spiritual comfort like prayer, Communion, etc., to someone in my parish or to a complete stranger, would be happy to do so. Among other things, it also reminds me that I wasn't able to provide very much in the way of spiritual comfort to my mother in her last days other than to, again, enlist the services of my pastor to do the "heavy lifting." And I don't want to seem like the Angel of Death hovering over the hospital bed wanting to talk/do Godstuff more than what my aunt would be comfortable with normally.

What is your experience in this type of situation, Matriarchs? Is it analogous to physicians who refer their own family members to other health care professionals? I'm starting to beat myself up about this, but on the other hand I know that my pastor's own standard pastoral-care question to me -- "Is there anything I can do for you right now?" -- is what I've been asking my aunt, and respecting her responses.

Our matriarchs were of one mind on this question - when it comes to our families, we are their family, first and foremost. Ours is to provide support and care as a niece or a daughter or a sister. That care may include prayer with our family member, but only if that is something that we would naturally share as a niece and an aunt.

Rector in Hawai'i suggests:

If your aunt has been open to chaplain visits, then talk with the chaplain about your concerns and have the chaplain do the pastoral care. And then talk with your own pastor about your concerns. The question, "Is there anything I can do for you right now?" often calls the 'patient' to have to think too much about what she might want. So if there's not an immediate response, make sure she's comfortable, hold her hand, be present, read some psalms, tell some jokes, let her know how much you care....not as a pastor but as her niece. After all, that's your primary relationship with her and that's where your history with her is. So be her loving niece and let the chaplain be her pastor.

From Jan, who blogs at -
Your aunt is lucky to have you and I'm wondering if you could indeed pray with her at some point. Maybe it's best to have another person be "her pastor" most of the time, but you could also have a precious, holy moment with her before she passes away. Imagine praying with her, thanking God that you get to be her niece. Make it about you in that she is a blessing to you. (You aren't "blessing her" by praying for/with her - which may sound overly pious to her - although you will surely bless her by this kind of prayer. Does that make sense?)

It will also bless her to hear you pray this prayer of appreciation. I hope you'll give us an update as time goes by.

Jacque writes...
I certainly understand and have experienced your struggle with your role in the midst of your family member's process of letting go of this life. I believe that you can and do provide spiritual support. However, it is the spiritual support of a niece -- not a pastor. Your aunt needs both. With both your mother and your aunt, you are able to share love and assurance, and to talk about your faith and their faith, when appropriate. You named your pastor's often used question: "Is there anything I can do for you right now?" My guess is that your aunt's answer to that question would be different when the question is asked by you than when the question is asked by the chaplain or by your pastor. Please don't beat yourself up about this. It is most important that you bring yourself to her in such a way that you are able to be open in the moment.

Our sympathy is with Singing Owl who very recently faced her mother's death:
Oh dear questioner…how I can relate! I felt very much this way too, as I watched my mother fading and then dying. Perhaps it is not so for all ministers, but I do think that it is very much like the doctor who a family member to someone else. I have now lost both my in-laws, my father and now (two weeks ago) my mother, and in none of these situations was I "pastoral" even though I wished to be and felt I "should" be. Stop beating yourself up, and I promise I will do the same.

And Wise Layperson offers:
My advice would be to continue to be yourself. Visit her, talk with her about what she wants to talk about, leave pauses in the conversation to allow for deeper expression. Not everyone needs defined 'spiritual care'. If she is not a regular church goer and doesn't have a current pastoral relationship with her own priest, then perhaps all she needs is company. Someone to spend time with her without conditions. If 'spiritual care' is important to you-- then bring it up to her, using I statements so that it is clear that this is your issue and not hers, and listen to what she has to say and do what she tells you. (Which is what you say you've been doing.) It sounds like you want to make certain that she has everything she needs, but you are not a mind reader, you can only do what she tells you needs doing. If you have asked what she needs and she has told you then be content with that and don't worry if it doesn't match up with what you "think" you should be doing for her.

In summary: separate your needs from her needs, check that communications is clear from your end, and be present for her. A side note: it might be possible to get your Aunt talking about her spiritual needs by setting up a time to talk to her about practical planning issues. Things like: does she have a will? Who is her medical guardian if she should lose consciousness? Does her medical guardian know her wishes should that happen?

What wisdom would you offer to this loving niece? Share your comments and insights with us.

May you live today and every day in God's amazing grace+


  1. What beautiful advice for a concerned niece! I would echo the thoughts that in family situations we are not unlike physicians, who would not dream of being in charge of the medical care of their own immediate family members. I do know a vet who operated on her pet in an emergency, but she admitted it was a terrible experience even though it turned out okay medically. And in my own experience of having a child in the ER, I called the chaplain to stand in the hall with me while the doctor did something to my son!
    As a pastor, I consider it a privilege to come to the bedside of a parishioner's family member, and I would do the same for a colleague without hesitating.

  2. I agree with all of the advice given so far. Like raising a child, it can take a village to walk with a loved one through death. My mom passed away last April and our family greatly benefited from a caring hospital chaplain and her gentle support.
    I hope our questioner finds solace in being herself as she supports and is supported through her aunt's journey.

  3. This is all very good advice.

    I experienced this a few years ago, and just recently, with my mom. A few years ago, I was in the middle of a cpe residency when my mom was hospitalized and was very seriously ill. She was admitted to a sister hospital where I had done one of my rotations, to a unit that I had been assigned for a one of my units. For a few days it was touch and go. I remember how it felt so easy to slide into the chaplain role. I also remember the chaplain who had been my mentor saying very gently, but firmly, "You are not her chaplain. You are her daughter."

    He was absolutely right. In that situation and in the most recent situation, the chaplains provided pastoral care to my mom and to my family. In both instances, my mom shared thoughts and feelings with the chaplains that she likely wouldn't have shared with me for wanting to be the mother and protect me. It gave her the freedom to go to a deeper level with her feelings.

    Praying for you as you walk with your aunt on this journey.

  4. Thanks for this wisdom from the matriarchs. It's so important for all of us to remember when there are times of family crisis.

  5. God's tug at our hearts is shared as we open our lives to let others in those sacred moments.


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