Conversations around medical crisis. Showing up

Enjoy this monthly post by Reverend Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer

If you are familiar with the ancient story of Job, you may have a bias against his friends who come to visit. But they got it right, initially.

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)

These three friends are doing what the rest of us try to do. They are trying to figure out how to act around a friend who has entered his darkest days (truly, as we will see, Job is in Phase Three).

You’ve been there. A friend is diagnosed with a terminal disease. A family member is admitted to Hospice care. Someone in your community is hurt in an accident or an act of violence.

What do you even say?

Job’s friends give us five examples to follow.

1) They went.

They didn’t add him to the prayer line. They met together.

They put a full stop on their “normal lives” for their friend. They left their own homes. They came together by agreement to go and sympathize with Job. They decided to be with their friend on purpose.

When I was in Bible College, I lived nine hours from home. And my roommate one year was a friend who shared my hometown. Ryan and I often carpooled home on breaks from school. And one year, just before finals, we were preparing for another journey home.

I was in the student center one evening when Ryan came in. I could tell something wasn’t right. Ryan and his grandfather had a close relationship. One of those “go out to lunch, just the two of them” type of friendships. His grandpa had helped him in many ways, financially, relationally, and in ways that sometimes only a grandparent can.

Ryan had just gotten off the phone with his mother. This was the old days when you had to pay per minute to talk long distance (kids, ask your parents), so calls from home were not as casual then. She shared that his grandfather had a medical event and was in the hospital. In fact, they were moving him to comfort care, and he wasn’t expected to live more than 24 hours.

Ryan was devastated.

He wanted to see his grandfather, but finals were just a couple days away, it was a long drive and his mother had encouraged him to stay and study.

I wasn’t an expert at anything related to visiting the hospital at that age, but there was something in me that knew a conversation was needed.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

Ryan was still in a bit of a shock after hearing the news. “Well, I want to go… but…” he responded.

“Then let’s go.” I said. A college kid is always up for a sudden adventure.

A small light dawned in his eyes. “You mean, both of us?”

“Sure.” I smiled. “I know how to get there…”

Ryan was concerned that even if we left immediately his grandpa might be dead by the time we arrived.

“How about this?” I asked. “How about I drive, since you are dealing with the emotions.”

When we arrived in town, I dropped Ryan off at the hospital and went home to sleep. The next day my phone rang. Ryan was on the other end. He was so thankful for the few hours he got to spend with his grandpa before his death.

Sometimes you just need to go.

Job's friends went.

Sometimes the best way to really help is to put the rest of life on hold and go.

2) Job's friends were silent for seven days.

Most of us would die if we had to be silent for seven days. To be honest, as the noise in our lives continues to grow, being silent for seven minutes can seem like a real accomplishment.

Why were they silent? The text says it was because they saw how great his pain was.

Maybe this ancient story is the first place where someone thought, “I don’t have any magic words to help you feel better.”

3) They sat down.

In a 2011 study, the University of Kansas Nursing Department discovered the following:

Patients perceived the provider [doctor] as present at their bedside longer when he sat even though the actual time the physician spent at the bedside did not change significantly whether he sat or stood. Patients with whom the physician sat reported a more positive interaction and a better understanding of their condition.[1]

To be overly practical, it has a lot to do with sitting down.

Eliphaz and Job's other two friends must have referenced the University of Kansas study. Or else, they must have intuitively been able to feel that since Job was in such rough shape, they needed to sit with him, literally.

Sometimes you need to go, sit down and be quiet.

4) They wept out loud.

I am not a crier.

At one point in my life, I thought that was something to be proud of. In fact, I looked down on those who cried “too much” and I considered them weak. This misunderstanding of people (and the nature of crying) nearly cost me my relationship with my beautiful bride!

But I have learned better.

When my ministry was focused on young people, we took a trip each summer to a church camp with high school students. I looked forward to it every year. But one year everything broke loose in the middle of the week.

We received word that there had been a bad car accident and two young men (friends of many in our youth group) had tragically died. I didn’t know the boys personally, but they were very much a part of the lives of many of the students I cared about.

Many of the plans for the rest of the week were adjusted. The adult leaders, myself included, spent a lot of time listening, talking and praying with the kids who were the most affected.

One night, we were singing in the main service. A small group of teens were in the row in front of me. They had their arms around one another. They were crying quietly, and I got caught up thinking about them (sympathizing with them). I reached up and placed a hand of support on the young man right in front of me.

That’s when it happened.

I started to cry. Not for the boys who had died. I couldn’t do that—I didn’t even know them. But I cried for the pain my friends were in. As teens usually do, they welcomed me into their circle and put their arms around me as well.

Later, one student told me that he learned more about God from the tears I shed in that circle that evening than from all of my Sunday school lessons combined. I’m still not sure if that was a compliment. But I am sure it was true.

People ask what chaplains do at the hospital. I describe being present for 40 percent of the deaths in our entire region, delivering death notifications, praying over dying loved ones, and serving victims of everything from strokes to gun violence. I get some common questions.

How do you do it?

Isn’t that depressing?

But the truly sensitive people ask another question.

Is it OK for you to cry?

Of course.

Maybe you are really good at crying. When my wife, Kristen, heard that there were people in the first century who could be hired to mourn at funerals to show respect for the dead, her response was, “I think I could do that job.”

That was not my response.

But, I think Job’s friends give us a good example to follow. When someone close to us is in that much pain, crying out loud is an appropriate response.

Let’s summarize the examples we have uncovered in Job’s story:

  • They went
  • They sat down
  • They shut up
  • They cried

Simple, right? Yes, it is simple. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes our inclinations lead us very far from these simple practices, especially when people are in Phase Three. We’ll talk about that in a future post.


[1] February 2012

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