On Grandmas and Hospitals and the Ministry of Presence

I’m pretty sure my grandma is invincible. At 93 years old, she’s broken bones, to be sure, and been sick an average amount. But she just keeps living — the kind of living that just never gives up, laughs at the little things, prays about all the things.     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But this Wednesday she was taken to the emergency room with enough weakness and nausea to merit a couple days in the hospital. As soon as Mom called with the news, I was off to the hospital.

Here’s the deal: visiting a hospital is awkward. There’s few places like it where visitors so deeply don’t know where to go, what to do, what to expect.

Do I bring a present? Do I tell jokes? Do I say something wise?

Sure, sure, and sure. But, those things are optional, it seems. I learned that afternoon that, at least when visiting a hospital, I don’t have to come prepared with a plan of what to do — probably shouldn’t in fact; in a hospital, plans can change as fast as a heart rate. I don’t exactly have be a chaplain or a nurse or a Patch Adams.

I just have to be.

In a recent Advent sermon, I heard mention of Henri Nouwen’s notion of the ministry of presence.

“It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

In the hospital, I saw more and more, like Nouwen, that maybe the first thing should be to know the patient’s name, help them eat and drink, hear about their hurts and hearts and hunger, hold their hand while they get blood drawn (even if you both cringe…because, well, at least you’re cringing together).

When they need an advocate, be an advocate. When they need a listener, be a listener. When they need a translator to dumb down the doctor-speak, be a translator. Just be.

When they need a walker or wheelchair or something (and you can’t locate one), be a walker. Yep. When Grandma had to walk to the bathroom, Mom would take up the rear, prepared to prevent a fall, and I would shuffle along in front holding my arms out straight and stiff and saying “Use me as a walker. Use me as a walker.”

I think about sitting on the edge of Grandma’s hospital bed, holding her very frail, thin-skinned hand, with all its IV tubes and ID bracelets, and I think about Advent and I marvel that God would come and be with us. That God, in Christ, came to sit alongside our lives and hold our hands. That Immanuel, God with us, practiced the ultimate ministry of presence and calls us to follow in his footsteps just however we can.

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3 thoughts on “On Grandmas and Hospitals and the Ministry of Presence

  1. This is beautiful Julia. Love the photo! And it coincides with my experience. I volunteer with a local hospice. Once a week, I visit nursing homes — much like hospitals in the way you describe — and just sit there and talk to them. Mostly, listen to them. Ask how their week is, how their back is feeling, how their family is doing, is there anything they’d care to discuss, ask them to tell me again about their favorite Christmas, how they met their spouse … Just being there and listening means SO much to them. And it has taught me the importance of just being there for someone. I can’t cure what ails them, but I can be there with them for a little while. And yeah, I think that’s where the whole God thing comes in. Being with us. And loving us. Always. Wherever we are.

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