First it was Ken who entered hospice. Then Kent. And just yesterday, the news came that Bill has been placed under the care of a local hospice program. In each case, this later stage in personal and medical care has followed years of the quiet agonies that come when dealing with disease.
What has struck me in each of these cases is how family members have worked out of sight of most of our congregation’s members. Other than for the sparse notes in weekly prayer lists, no one may know the trouble they’ve seen—the daily-life ministries of these individuals and their loving family members.
Few of us may realize how daily routines have circled tighter and tighter around physical symptoms, doctor’s visits, test results and treatments. Few of us may know how a normal life seems distant and perhaps unreachable. We may not fully grasp the weight of being closed-in, perhaps even trapped, by the work of caregiving. We may not comprehend what it feels like to deal with sometimes-contradictory medical information. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, we may not see the small-and-significant joys of shared caregiving that occur regularly.
In church this past Reformation Sunday, I was struck by the presence of the spouses of Ken, Kent and Bill—whose outer appearances remained positive, outgoing and friendly—masking whatever turmoil and troubles they may have been experiencing down deep. I wondered how it must feel to come into that day’s worship, trying to leave at home some of their worries and burdens. Held inside like a capsule of sorrow is one reality—the press of caregiving tasks, perhaps-unfamiliar roles or responsibilities, the likelihood of death. The other reality—being surrounded at this time of worship, soaring with joy in God’s presence, resolving to keep the Reformation’s hopes alive—is also evident. Both contexts remain in tension with each other, each offering valuable perspectives in difficult circumstances.
I wonder about their feelings of deep isolation. How do these women answer our polite-but-fervent questions? How deep should our conversations extend? How might these caregivers be hopeful and helpful for those of us who ask questions? How do these beloved sisters ask for help—or decline what isn’t necessary or helpful? How do they perceive and receive the love that’s embedded even in the simplest personal exchanges?
Some of us have walked in their shoes; others may be doing so right now. At a visceral level, some of us may know their troubles and can find our way through the maze of their emotions. We may even become the knowing, caring face of Jesus. We can shoulder some part of their burdens, however small. We can speak words—of experience and realized hope—that show our gut-level understandings about this time in their lives. We can gratefully receive the inspiration of their witness.
The tale doesn’t end here, of course. The African American spiritual’s words are right: Because Jesus knows the troubles we’ve seen, we who follow his example also realize what’s required of us. We do not sit by idly, mired in our ignorance. We’re a community of faith, so we extend support and care in tangible ways. Those who love Ken, Kent and Bill show up in phone calls and door-knocks. Food appears, fervent messages find their way into cards and caught conversations. Words of faith move beyond platitudes into what only hearts can best express and hear. Love takes on all of its forms and moves into the lives of the caregivers.
They are known!