Saturday, May 31, 2014

How To Comfort

[This is a transcript of a speech I gave to our church men’s club in 2012.  Minor details were edited to accommodate the written form.]

In 2011 (three years ago as I write this), I spent three weeks in the hospital after a stroke in which I was paralyzed on my right side. I have regained much movement, but still have a limp and right sided weakness.  See my Caring Bridge journal for details. I think I learned some things about comforting that I thought I would share with you. This is all based on my experience, not research. I didn't condense some seven point sermon on comforting, or read a book or a magazine article. These are just my observations. You can observe a lot just by watching… Let me start on the lighter side with some of my pet peeves…

There are things not to say. Even if they're true. There are a lot of things that the victim can say that you can't.  For instance:

James 1:2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.

Don’t tell me to count it all joy. I know it's in the Bible, and I know it's true. I just haven't been able to live up to it yet.

If you can't relate, don't try. People will say "I know how you feel". To be blunt, no you don't. Just because your uncle had a stroke doesn't mean you know what it's like. There are 1001 illnesses, injuries, and losses I haven't experienced.  For instance, even though I had a stroke, I can only begin to imagine what it is like for Helen Golz (the audience all knew her – she had a series of stroke and was quite disabled.  She died this year, 2014).

A quote from friend Sarah Witt, a speech pathologist, "The first thing we were taught in aphasia class is NEVER to say you understand. I've seen enough of how messy life can be to know I don't understand a bit. I can't even imagine I could have half the gumption it must take to be you and Kit every day. The only opportunity it seems to be is for the rest of us to tearfully stand back in awe at people who go thru life changing trials bravely and with dignity. We miss you both a lot."  (She gives me too much credit, I did not face this trial with dignity or bravery.)

On the flipside, if you can relate, please do. If you have gone through something similar, it really does help to swap stories. That's one reason why I go to the stroke support group every month, and why I volunteer at Regions Hospital to visit new stroke survivors.

Don't tell me about other people's miraculous healings. You may think it's encouraging, but I just think "where's my miracle?"

Don't blame the victim. Even if someone is dying of lung cancer after smoking for 40 years, don't say it. They can say "I should've quit smoking years ago". But no one else can say that.

Actual things people have said to me.

·                    “Think of it as an adventure” - no, an adventure is two cruise tickets to Barbados.
·                    “What an opportunity” – no, opening that brewpub you always wanted - that's an opportunity.
·                    “People would kill to trade places with you.”

Actual things people have said to others

·                    “I wonder what secret sin you must have.” (to a woman wheelchair bound from arthritis)
·                    “You asked for it” - said to cancer patient (name omitted)

Let me give you the first rule of comfort. Show up.

Like I said, I was in the hospital for about three weeks. During that time I had about 100 different visitors. Obviously some visited more than once.  Many of you in this room came to visit me, some of you even visited me when I was in Duluth the first three days. Yes I kept track. I had my laptop, and every night I would record the names of visitors. This is the gold standard of showing up - actually showing up. Obviously that's not always possible.

I also got enough get well cards to fill a shoebox. And some of those were from entire congregations like Eau Claire, with dozens of signatures. There are lots of reasons why you can't physically show up in person - a card can be a pretty close second. Sometimes they arrived just when I needed a boost. Don't forget phone calls and e-mail and Facebook.

Let me give you the ultimate example of showing up - Jill Taylor's mother. Jill is a neuroscientist who had a stroke at age 37. Eight years later, after a nearly complete recovery, she wrote the book "My Stroke of Insight (1)". A blood clot the size of a golf ball damaged her speech, both understanding speech and making speech. When her mother GG found out, she put her affairs in order and came to be with her daughter. Let me read you a paragraph:

“I remember clearly the moment GG came around the corner into my room. She looked me straight in the eye and came right to my bedside. She was gracious and calm, said her hellos to those in the room, and then lifted my sheet and proceeded to crawl into bed with me. She immediately wrapped me up in her arms and I melted into the familiarity of her snuggle. It was an amazing moment in my life. Somehow she understood that I was no longer her Harvard doctor daughter, but instead I was now her infant again. She says she did what any other mother would have done. But I'm not so sure. Having been born to my mother was truly my first and greatest blessing. Being born to her a second time has been my greatest fortune.”

That doesn't mean that I wanted any of you to crawl into bed with me however.

Let me give you a different kind of example. Twenty years ago I was in the hospital for an appendectomy. I was hospitalized for five days (I think appendectomies are faster now). Our minister at the time never came to see me. He called me on the telephone. Let me put it plainly - he phoned it in.  At least he did call.  That minister left our church in 2011, I chose not to follow him.

Suppose somebody is in the hospital, which is better? Spend an hour on your knees praying for healing or drive to the hospital and visit them?  Here's one answer.

Matthew 25:35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. (King James 2000)(2)

In the “Freeman” translation: when I was sick, you showed up. When I was hungry, you showed up - with food. When I was naked, you showed up - with blankets, and clothes.

Don't get me wrong, though, I'm very very grateful for all the prayers that went up on my behalf.

The second rule of comfort - I don't have a second rule of comfort.

What I know about comforting I learned from you, from your example. You don't need a seven-point sermon on how to comfort. I was sick and you showed up - with food, with games, toys, stuffed animals, chocolate, with cards and more. You may think I know some great secret to comforting based on my experience. I'll say it again, what I know I learned from you.

Christ said "if you have seen me, you have seen the Father." He sent you, and many many others. I have seen the Father through you.


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