When the crisis hits where do you go, what do you do, how do you respond? These are questions I have come to experience as a Minister, discovering that a parishioner is going through: a marital separation, a cancer diagnosis, a job loss, a family conflict, bankruptcy, etc… In each of these cases I try to remain calm, listen to the entire story, affirm the worth of the other, share what I have learned from others going through similar crisis, recommend professional help if needed, confess my own limits as a spiritual/pastoral care giver (I am not a professionally trained counselor), listen some more, offer ongoing support, offer to pray with the other if appropriate, check in regularly, occasionally be a truth teller if necessary (ie if a person shares lots and lots of problematic behaviours and asks “why are bad things happening to me???”), and most importantly make it clear that throughout this crisis this person is loved and supported and cared for.
In most cases time heals and with long walks, long talks and good listening the person will live to see a better day. Of course with certain diagnosis that may not be the case and it is important to not offer false hope. I am calm and try to remind the person of the positives that surround her/him in the challenging time but I never say, “It is all going to be fine, you are going to be well and live for a long time to come.” I have heard pastoral care givers share these words and I worry that if they are wrong the person in crisis may never trust again. Further, I worry that such words prevent the other from grasping realities that may require new responses. If the person does receive a terminal diagnosis there may come a time for her/him to turn attention to closure, goodbyes, looking at legacy and if that person remains focused on this promise you have told them, that all is going to return to normal, those important responses may not come to pass.
It is also very important to find the right balance between listening to the other with ears to hear a very unique story and at the same time to listen to common ground where you can legitimately share some of your personal experiences that resonate with the other. It’s a tricky balance, going too far with the uniqueness of the other’s story prevents you from sharing experiences from your life and other’s lives that my give hope to the other. On the other hand sharing “I know exactly what you are feeling” is a dangerous phrase and may well bring you to the arrogant assumption that you know what the other SHOULD do. Whenever I share experiences, mine or others, I always add the caveat that this “might” be helpful, that this was helpful to “him/her/me” but perhaps not applicable to the other, and always, always, always I remind the other that I am not a professional counselor and what I am sharing comes only from a place of experience and humility.
I confess I am a doer so there is always offered to the other at least one tangible “take-away”, ie a phone number of an agency that might help, a book or article I found helpful, or a support group that may provide some relief. We all care for others in part by using methods we would wish others might care for us. I like “take-aways” provided they are not offered with the word SHOULD in the mix. That word is almost always a way to disqualify your advice to me. I like advice, I like “take-aways”, I like it when others share what worked for them but when I am in a crisis or dilemma I like the qualifying word “might” that confesses humility and openness.