It was my first real death, a few weeks into my time at the hospital, I was far from the wide-eyed new chaplain, but I’m hardly seasoned either. It was particularly hard. An all day process, everyone involved knew that today would be the end. Checking in on the family throughout the day, I saw generations lean on each other as the matriarch was passing from life. I stopped in mid-afternoon to check on the family and the tiny room had but a few family members. The mood shifted quickly, as it does in these times, and they began to tell me stories. She’s the straight-face to his ridiculous jokes, road trips where gas ran thin, a particularly comical canoe trip. Soon, the tears flowed from joy and laughter rather than from grief and sadness.
It was at this moment that her heart began to slow, signifying the final moments.
More and more family flows in, the quietness only being punctuated by the sounds of grief. In moments like this, the chaplain has to read the situation: does this family want me here? Should I say something or let quietness reign? As first experiences go, this one was fairly easy to read: stay and be quiet. The patriarch said some words to the family with tears streaming, said goodbye to his wife, and she was gone.
In this tiny ICU room with seventeen family members, two nurses, and me, I am overwhelmed by the fact that I am a stranger to these people. A stranger. In the most precious, painful moment, there’s me, the stranger. . the quiet, awkward stranger. After the family spent some time alone and arrangements had been made, I came to give my final condolences to the family. After I prayed with them, the patriarch embraced me with all the love and despair he was experiencing and said between sobs: “Thank you for being here.”
It was heartbreaking and confusing. What had I done but, in fact, be there? There in that still room, I had done what I thought was nothing more than stand to the side and be quiet. It is often said that chaplains, to patients at least, represent God, this was the first time I felt the weight of such a big claim. I was reflecting on this with some fellow minister friends; “Why,” I posed to the group, “did what I do matter so much to him? I was just a stranger in the room.” Ben observed in his typically insightful way, that God is often the stranger.
God is often the stranger.
Particularly in pain and grief, God is the stranger. C.S. Lewis wrote of this in A Grief Observed, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claim upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be-or so it feels-welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. . .Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” While hard to fully absorb when in times of happiness, Lewis speaks to the darkness of grief quite well.
God is often the stranger, and in this moment, I got to experience being the quiet stranger, a reminder that while God may seem far from the reality of our pain, God is always present.
 Lewis, C.S. A Grief Oberved. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989. 17-18.
Thank you for this.