“I don’t know how you do this day after day.”

By Marshall Scott

“I don’t know how you do this, day after day.”

He was standing in the hall, outside the room. In the room, surrounded by other family members, his mother lay in a hospital bed, dead. He was standing outside, grieving in his own way, but in his own way unable to go to the bedside.

“I don’t know how you do this, day after day.”

This is hardly the first time I’ve heard that statement. Indeed, it is pretty common. Wrapped in, almost overwhelmed by their own sorrow, family members will look at us who walk with them through that sorrow, through the prism of their own fears. The family members don’t want this experience. How, then, can some of us make a career of accompanying them, and so many others, through it?

Several different thoughts go through my head at the question. One is that I’m the wrong person to ask. I grew up with a small town funeral home in the family. To visit my aunt and uncle was also to visit the funeral home, for they lived in a small apartment at the back, so as to be available at all times. Too, since it was a small town, to visit was almost always to walk in on someone else’s funeral, but someone my mother knew from childhood. It was simply a part of being in a large extended family, with roots spread through the community. Death was simply more of a family event for me.

Another is to recognize that it really is harder for the persons actually grieving than it is for us who walk with them. I have been on the other side, too; and I don’t think my grief, my fear, was really that much more controlled. That experience does help me empathize; but as empathetic as I can be, I know it’s harder for them.

I can acknowledge, too, that this isn’t something I do “day after day.” In my suburban, community hospital death really isn’t a daily occurrence. Grief and sorrow certainly are, for there are many losses other than death. At the same time, I still get to see most patients go home, stronger, in less pain, and with more hope.

But the most important answer isn’t about history or distance or balance. The most important answer, and one that I do share, is, “It’s what I’m supposed to do.” You see, the most important answer is about vocation. I can do this day after day – indeed, I have had periods of months when I did do it day after day – because it’s what God has called me to do. More broadly, it’s what God has called us to do, because I believe that vocation is as much a factor for the others I work with, nurses and doctors and social workers and aids, as it is for me. Whether we would use that language or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, underlying all of our work is vocation, a sense that we are called to this work, to this companionship in the face of grief.

Sometimes it’s easier to see this in other professions than in my own. For example, I have often noted that there are some specialties in which a nurse will work for either eighteen months or eighteen years. I have said that at various times about emergency room work, or intensive care, or pediatric nursing, or hospice. It’s not that those practices are all that much alike, except in the sense that each requires a special gift, a special charism, that allows the individual to sustain the particular variety of stress that is characteristic of each setting. Each environment creates a particular kind of emotional and spiritual stress, and finding one’s living in each seems to me to require a particular charism and vocation. Without that charism, that vocation, individuals will eventually leave, sometimes burning out before realizing that they need to leave, for a more amenable practice.

I think the same is true in our ministries, professional and otherwise. I have had colleagues in other ministries make the same comment as the grieving family member: “I don’t know how you do this day after day.” At the same time, I have to appreciate that I don’t know how they do what they do, either. It’s been a long time since God called me to parish ministry, and while God might call me to that yet (as I often remind candidates for ordination and others exploring vocation, the question isn’t just, “What is God calling me to,” but “What is God calling me to now?”), I can’t assume that I know how I would fare. I have been in parish ministry, a long time ago in a setting far, far away. I have clear memories of committee meetings where little seemed to happen, meetings where I found myself silently clawing at the arms of my chair. At the same time, I came to realize that those meetings were important in the life of the parish for the structural maintenance of the community all out of proportion to their “demonstrable outcomes.” For all the fulfillment we specialists find in “serving at the point of need” (not to mention excitement; I have often said that chaplains are the “adrenaline-junkies” of the clergy), the life of the Church, and the heart of the life of the individual Christian, is centered in the parish; and I appreciate my colleagues who have the special gifts to work in parishes well.

The lessons for this week, the Fifth after Epiphany, are about vocation. We hear of Isaiah’s call as “a man of unclean lips, in a people of unclean lips;” of Paul’s call “last of all, as one untimely born;” and of Peter’s call as “a sinful man.” Each of them carried out a special ministry, and carried it out for the remainder of their lives; but none of them could have done so without that call. Because of their vocations, they were able to provide special ministries, calling God’s people to hope in the face of great doubt and great grief. From their own words we hear it: it wasn’t their personal qualities or histories that sustained them. They simply did what they were called to do. They responded in the words Isaiah stated explicitly: “Here I am. Send me.”

There is in this world more than enough challenge and grief to go around. We are called to minister in one way or another in the face of – indeed, in the midst of – all of that challenge and grief. And if each of us sees in the ministries of others aspects that might be difficult, in fact others will see similar difficulties in ours. We are best able to minister day after day when we discover where we are called. Personal qualities and histories may in fact contribute to that discernment. On the other hand, if we pursue lives to which we are not called, we will not last eighteen years, or even eighteen months; and it may be burnout that shows us we are mistaken.

I have heard this in a hospital hall, from someone frightened of his own grief, but each of us in ministry and in service may well hear the same comment: “I don’t know how you do this day after day.” We may think about our gifts and skills, about our histories and our circumstances, for all of those may make their contribution. At bottom, though, the most important answer is a matter of vocation. One way or another, each of us experienced a call, a sense of vocation, for this ministry in this circumstance; and the most important reason that each of us can live and serve in this ministry is simply that on one way or another we answered: “Here am I. Send me.”

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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