A woman in my parish unexpectedly lost her adult daughter a few months ago. She has been experiencing severe, paralyzing, debilitating grief compounded by alcoholism. She rarely accepts offers to visit, although she will occasionally speak to me on the phone. She has been evaluated by social workers, but will not accept any alcohol or grief counseling. I am overwhelmed. I feel helpless to help her. I know I can't fix it, and I'm honestly having a hard time even being a non-anxious presence, because nearly every time I speak to her she repeatedly asks me how I would feel if I lost my child. I don't know what to say to that heartbreaking question - not the first time, and not the tenth time. I really don't know what to do.
I can hear the anguish of a pastor’s heart in your words. We answered this call, at least many of us did, because we want to help others. Sometimes, however, we feel absolutely powerless, completely useless.
But we are not powerless or useless. We are the chief intercessors for our people. Pray fervently for this woman. Pray for her grief to be eased. Pray for her deliverance from her addiction. Pray for yourself to be fully present with her even if you have no answers for her questions. Pray for God to grant you words that may offer comfort. Pray for others who may be trying to comfort her. Pray before you call her on the phone.
When she asks “how would you feel…”, could you acknowledge some sense of how you think you would feel? Broken-hearted, beyond grief, hopeless? Perhaps all you can say is, “I can’t begin to imagine how it must hurt. I am so sorry.” And if she is silent or angry in the face of your response, let that be okay. Let her know that she is safe to express her grief with you.
For your own spiritual and emotional health as a caregiver, I strongly urge you to consider a relationship with a spiritual director. S/he can be a tremendous help for you as you learn to accept your limitations and embrace the means of grace that God so freely offers us.Sunday's Coming adds:
I don’t know what to do either.
I am reminded of a wise chaplain in a psychiatric ward who once counseled me to listen to what my gut was saying when I sat with people experiencing mental health problems. Often they did not say very much, but how they were feeling was communicated to me in how I went away feeling (I hope that makes some sort of sense!).
As you describe this woman’s situation and your own response I feel lost, overwhelmed, helpless... I feel it, you feel it, is it too simplistic to suggest that she feels that too? So ‘all’ you can do is be the steady presence – continuing to ring and ask how she is, continuing to pray, responding with a visit when she is ready for that.
She’s in a rough sea – you’re the beacon of light when she’s ready to try and steer for shore.
And you don’t need to be alone – at least one other person needs to also be phoning her from time to time, and maybe if you have the right people a small group could pray for her and let her know they are doing that. It is all you can do – and I pray it will help in time.