People have a habit of coming up to me and telling me the most amazing things. These are really deep, dark, personal things that are very private. I’ve taken classes on how to deal with this because it happened so often. I believe that since people are handing me very heavy stories, it is important that I learn how to receive them and carry them in a way that is safe for me. I believe it is also important to make sure that I handle what they have had to say in a way that is respectful to them. There are many ways to do this incorrectly.

I’m sure all of us have had the experience of when we say something really private and personal to someone that they will say something insensitive such as “Oh something worse happened to me,” or “Oh, it’ll get better,” or “It’s not that bad.” It is important not to diminish a person or minimize their pain. But it is also important not to attempt to fix them. Sometimes (often) the most healing thing you can do is simply to listen.

I know several people who have gone on to become professional counselors because the same thing happens to them. They get paid to listen to people tell their secrets and fears. I feel that to turn such a private and personal and beautiful experience into a transaction cheapens it. I believe that it is exactly the same as the difference between making love and being a prostitute. It has turned a very private and intimate experience between two people into a mechanical thing that has money involved.

Perhaps the answer is that people need to all be trained how to talk honestly, and how to listen with open hearts. We need to share with each other. The relationship needs to be two-sided, equal. And then people need healthy places to share.

Sharing with the bank teller or the store clerk isn’t healthy or equal. The employee is trapped there and is not allowed to share how she is feeling. They are not trained in this either. There need to be meeting areas where people can gather and speak on equal ground.

Poem – Grief is messy

Grief is messy.
People don’t like to get it all over themselves.
This is why they brush it off, brush you off.
This is why they say “At least it isn’t…” or
“At least you have something left…” or
“It could have been worse…” or
Any number of things designed to get you out.
Out of their heads, out of their lives, out of the room.
They are afraid that your grief
Is so big
It will spill over
And cover them
And maybe even infect them.
So they say “At least” and “If” and “But” to hem in
To wall up
To shut down
Your grief
Just in case
It is catching.

Heavy words

Some people just aren’t very good at carrying things. Consider if you were going to move. Do you ask someone who weighs 87 pounds and is very frail to help you move your big-screen television and your sofa? Of course not. If they trying to carry that they will get very hurt. Your sofa or your television might get dropped as well. You’ll be sad or angry and your friend will be embarrassed and hurt.

Likewise, if you have emotional things that need to be carried it’s important to find the right person. Some people simply cannot handle other people’s feelings. This often means that they can’t handle their own either. Say you tell someone about something that is very difficult for you. There is something really heavy going on in your life, and you need to share it. If the person listens intently and compassionately, then they are a good person to carry this. If they can listen in a way that helps you and doesn’t harm them, then you are both OK. But if they get angry that you told them, or secretly complain that you confided in them, or even worse, they start to tell you about something worse that happened to them, then you know they can’t carry your problems.

The goal of compassionate listening is to carry with, not carry for. The listener isn’t taking away the problem – they are just making it easier for the speaker to carry their own problems. The best kind of listener helps the other person feel better just for having been there. They don’t have to fix the problem, they just have to listen.

It is just like lending someone something. If you have a new friend and you lend them a book it is best to lend them only one to start off with. See how they act with it. Do they give it back within a week? Or do they forget about it for a year? When they return it do they return it in the same condition that you lent it to them? Or is it dog-eared and underlined and dirty? Is the dust jacket ripped off? If they can properly handle one item that was lent to them, then you might lend them more next time. But you probably won’t let them borrow 10 at a time until they have really proven themselves.

The same is true with feelings. Not everybody can handle them. Sometimes they are just too heavy, or the person isn’t strong enough.

We just want to be heard

Just like lessons are repeated until learned, stories are repeated until heard.

People most want to be heard and understood, but sometimes they don’t even know what their real message is. If someone tells you a story repeatedly, it may not be because they forgot they had already told you. It may be because they feel that message they are trying to convey with the story has not gotten across.

The real message is almost always about feelings and not events. It is about feeling respected, validated, included, and needed. It is about being truly seen and appreciated as an individual.

Instead of listening to the story over and over, listen to the message underneath the story. The story is just a vehicle – look for the driver of the car. Listen to see if it is about feeling excluded or not wanted or some other difficult feeling. Listen for the deeper meaning. They are telling you the story again and again because their hurt has not been addressed. That wound will continue to be open until it is noticed and dealt with.

Be careful not to put your own feelings into this – ask them how they feel. It is better to ask than to assume. They may not have words for how they feel, so this may be difficult. Wait, and give them space. Offer other ways of expressing themselves – drumming, painting, dancing, singing tones, for instance. Not all communication is verbal. But all communication is essential.

Sometimes “dealing with” a wound isn’t about healing it – it is just about hearing it. Sometimes things just have to get out into the open.

How NOT to do Pastoral Care.

There is a lady I know who took the same Pastoral Care class that I did. She is a nurse and goes to church regularly. She is certified as a minister in her church. She isn’t ordained, per se. I thought that she would know how to handle it when I told her some heavy news.

My mother-in-law is now in the hospital. She passed out and hit her head. Just days earlier she found out that her cancer had spread to her lungs. I know that means she has just a few months left.

I don’t want this lady to pray for her to live longer. That isn’t why I started to tell her what was going on. I thought we were friends, and in a way we are. She tells me heavy stuff and good stuff. She tells me about the important things going on in her life. We celebrate together and mourn together. But it really is that I celebrate and mourn with her, about her issues, and she doesn’t return the favor. It isn’t reciprocal.

One thing that you have to remember about Pastoral Care, about mindfully listening to someone while they are in a bad situation, is that it isn’t about you. You aren’t supposed to talk about your situation, or compare, or outclass. You can’t tell the other person a story of how it is worse for you or someone you know. That kind of “perspective” isn’t helpful and it isn’t kind. It is the exact opposite of what is necessary.

What is necessary is just listening, and I mean really listening fully. Not being distracted, not trying to leave, not looking around at your phone or watch. You can ask the other person how they feel about it, and you can say “Gosh that has to be hard” but that is about all you are allowed to say.

They just need a safe person to talk to – one who can handle this information in a way that is healthy for both people. A good listener is like Houdini once he had prepared. He could warm up his stomach muscles in just such a way and then anybody could punch him in the stomach as hard as they wanted and he’d be fine. He had trained himself how to do this. A good listener does the same. If they aren’t ready for it, a hard story can destroy them, so they have to train to be able to receive it. Taking a pastoral care class is part of this training.

I should have known better when I first started talking to her yesterday. Just after I reminded her that my mother in law has pancreatic cancer (not a pushover kind of cancer), she turned away and made some (unrelated) joke to the instructor of the class we were in. I felt slighted, but I decided to give her another chance.

When she turned back to me, I kept on with the story. I’m a bit torn about what to do because of the history of physical and mental abuse she allowed in her house. It is my father in law’s fault that the abuse happened, but it is her fault that it continued. They were both very immature when they got married. They are both still immature now, and they are in their 70s.

So some of the issue that I’m dealing with is how much are we supposed to get involved in this situation. You reap what you sow, right? But as a Christian, I’m supposed to forgive, right?

I just feel like if I pretend nothing happened, then I’m doing the same thing she did. I’m saying that it was OK. And it isn’t OK. Abuse is never OK, whether you are the one doing it or you are the one allowing it. By allowing it, you are sanctioning it.

So this lady, this minister, this person who has taken the same class I have and should know better, she starts telling me a story. Now, it isn’t a story about her, but it isn’t a helpful story. It isn’t enlightening, and it isn’t useful. It doesn’t tell me a way to deal with this situation. It actually makes me feel worse.

(Trigger warning)
(I didn’t get this warning when I got this story)
(Such is life)
It was a story about a couple that she knew in a nursing home. Both husband and wife were in separate rooms, and it was for a terrible reason. The husband was abusing his wife, sexually, and their children were OK with it. “She’s his wife” they’d say, as if that excuses rape.

(Warning over)

She went on and on with her story and I felt trapped. Finally it stopped and there was some silence. I digested this, still not knowing what to do about the situation I brought up, and feeling worse because of the story she told. Helpless. Raw. Frustrated. Dirty.

I digested this story and knew that my boundaries had been violated. I told her that I can’t handle those kinds of stories, and she apologized. She said she was a nurse and terrible things happen around and to nurses all the time.

She proceeded to tell me some of the horrible things that have happened. It got graphic.

Somehow her apology ended up being even worse than the reason for the apology.

She didn’t see the error of her way – she didn’t get that telling that kind of story to anybody isn’t a great idea. It is especially a bad idea if the person is experiencing a problem.

I can handle it. I’m pretty strong, emotionally. I’ve learned a lot about boundaries. I wonder about anybody else she might “help”, and how they will react.

I now know that I can’t trust her with anything heavy.
She’ll drop it on me.

The purpose of taking a pastoral care class, in fact, the purpose of being a minister, is to learn how to help people. It isn’t to carry someone else’s burdens for them. It is to carry them with them for a little while. When you do that, you make it a bit easier for them to see what they are supposed to do. When you do that, you give them a little breathing room.

You are never supposed to add to their burden.


If you are in the hospital and you call for a chaplain, she heals you in a way that the doctors and nurses can’t.

They bring pills and IV medication. She brings a bucket. The bucket is herself. She empties out herself and you pour your problems in.

She listens to the deeper problems. She isn’t hearing for physical symptoms. She is listening for deeper down. What is the source of the pain? What is the root of it all? What are you afraid of?

People tend to be motivated out of fear or love. A fear-based life results in one full of pain and anxiety. Relieve the reasons for the fear and you relieve the pain and anxiety.

Sometimes you can’t take away the problem. Sometimes the situation can’t be changed. Then the only thing to do is change your opinion of it. The more you fight against it, the more pain you will feel. Stop. Relax into it. Accept it. It will hurt less.

Life is a lot like giving birth to ourselves over and over. The more we resist it, the harder it will be.

Accept. Relax. Explore it. Don’t fight it. Don’t define it. It isn’t good or bad.

It just is.


People come to me. They come to me to confess. They come to me to admit a weakness. They come to me in their confusion and fear. They come to me, unbidden, but not unwelcome.

People tell me the most amazing and awful things. They tell me stories that are so honest and so sad they rip my heart in two. They are strangers. They are waitresses in a restaurant. They are patrons at the library. They are members of the Y. Wherever I am sitting or standing still in one place for longer than 30 minutes, they come.

It is a blessing. It is a calling.

I don’t have to fix anything, I’ve come to realize. I don’t have to make it right. I don’t have to have the perfect word to say. I just have to be there. I have to listen with my whole being. I empty myself out and try my best to let the connection with God be clear and true.

That is it. They aren’t there for me. They are there for God, but God hides in us. God hides in each of us, and when we share from our hearts to another person we are sharing with God.

This is what I went to the minister at my old church for, what, four years ago now? I went to learn how to do this well. I want to be gentle and kind and open with each person who comes to me. But I also don’t want to be stepped on. Empathic people are sometimes confused with doormats. I want to learn how to be an ear for God. Turns out she didn’t really know how to tell me how to do this. She (fortunately) sent me to a pastoral care class and I learned something of this, but they didn’t tell much of the “how to” or the “don’t do this”. It was kind of on-the-job-training.

The trick is just to do it. Just show up. Just be available. And know that I’m going to do it wrong but that is OK too. And when I feel that feeling in my gut that says it is time to back away because it is getting to be too much, listen to it. Don’t fix anything. Just listen. Let people vent. Let them work it out. Be a mirror, or a sounding board. Don’t be a teacher or a coach.

Just listening is healing. Just being there is healing.

There is no magic, no pill, no advice. There is a lot of patience and time and compassion and love. And that is enough.

Meditation on snake charming – the eye of the storm.

There are several people who complain, gossip, whine, kvetch, etc. at work. This is every day, all day. All day long, if they are saying anything to anyone who is not a patron, they are complaining. It is very tedious, because I can’t escape it.

One was in the habit of gossiping, all the time. I’ve told her repeatedly to not do this because I don’t like listening to it. Gossip is displaced communication. When you don’t feel safe talking to person A about your issues with them, you talk to person B. Meanwhile, the problem still exists with person A and you, and now person B looks at person A differently. Also, you have just spread your negativity around. It is very hard to carry around someone else’s burdens, especially when they keep pushing them off on to you.

If this was any other environment, I could leave. I could walk away. But I’m stuck with these people for 40 hours a week, every week, for what feels like forever. I’ve told them that their negativity is bringing me down, and one of them agrees. She said she’d try to do better. It hasn’t happened yet.

One, years ago, when one of them asked if I minded her complaints about another coworker (simply a prelude to a complaint, not really asking permission), I said, “Yes, I do mind” and she got really huffy. You have to establish boundaries – what you will and will not accept. This is the same coworker who thought it was OK to come up behind me and hit me (lightly) on the head every day. When I stood up to her then, she was indignant, and my boss laughed at me. She has a lot of issues too.

This environment is a little messed up. But it isn’t a hard job, and it pays OK, and there is health insurance and a pension. And I’ve realized that it provides raw material for this blog, so I’m using this as a transformative experience.

Somewhere in the middle of a rant last night, I had an epiphany. I remember the story where Jesus says that if you are in alignment with God, if you are doing God’s will, then snakes and poison cannot harm you. I also remember in Pastoral Care class that you can’t fix another person’s problems. Your goal is to just let them vent. Let them talk it out.

I’m a little torn at times about this, because I feel that I’m enabling the problem. If they continue to vent to me, then they aren’t facing their problems head on. But, then, it took me years to get strong enough to look at them head on. But their rants and complaints are like poison to me. I’ve told them I can’t handle it, and yet it goes on. It is a bad habit for them, and I can’t escape.

So in my meditation last night, I thought, perhaps this is part of the plan. I need to be able to endure this. I need to learn how to stand in the middle of the storm. I need to learn how to be Daniel in the lion’s den. I need to be calm and with God in the middle of this, and not let their poison affect me. Their poison isn’t directed at me. I’m just a captive audience.

Maybe it is healing for them to vent. Maybe they’d be better off going to a counselor or a therapist. Maybe they already do, and it isn’t helping.

But I can use this as a pathway to healing for myself. I can learn to pray and meditate during their rants. I can learn to stand there and not really be there, because they don’t really care what I think about their complaints. They just want to complain. I can see every time they complain as a reminder to ask Jesus into the situation, to be there, with me and with them, in that moment, in that painful time.

Why do I call this snake charming? Because their rants, their complaints, their gossip is poison to me. It is like sitting down at a park bench to enjoy your lunch, only to find out that stick next to you is a snake. When they come up to me, I actually wince, because I expect another tirade.

But using this time as an opportunity to pray transforms that snake back into a stick. It is yet another reminder to seek God in all situations, and to try to see God in all people. I’m now going to try to look differently at these times. It won’t be easy. But I’ll do it, with God’s help.

Pastoral Care class, the short version.

A lot of people don’t know how to be around someone who is grieving. We say insensitive things. We run away, not knowing what to do. I took a class about this, and I certainly don’t have it all worked out or understand it all, but I think some of it that I’ve gleaned might be of help, so I’m going to share it.

Sometimes we say “it will be OK.” I think this is spurred on by fear. The friend doesn’t know how to be with a person who is in pain. They are trying to point towards the future, to point out that this won’t always be this way. The friend isn’t OK with what is happening right now, and doesn’t know how to deal with it.

It is healthy to acknowledge the way things are right now. It is ok to say that things are terrible. Sometimes it won’t be OK. Sometimes it will get worse. You as the caregiver have to be able to be present in the middle of that feeling.

I feel that we are afraid of feelings, any feelings. We are afraid of our own feelings, and of other people’s feelings. We don’t know how to be with someone who is experiencing anything other than joy, especially if that someone is ourself.

The trick is just to be there. You don’t have to fix anything. You just have to listen.

This can be the hardest thing you have ever done.

I heard a story about a man who was trying to help his wife who had breast cancer. He said he didn’t know whether to bring the bucket or the toolbox. He didn’t know if he should just listen to the wails and laments (the bucket) or if he should try to fix things (the toolbox). Sometimes it is a little of both.

We are taught to fix things. We are taught to have solutions. The trick here is that the solution is to let the other person get it out. The way you fix it is to be present to their pain. Feelings have a way of getting stuck inside us. We need to get them out.

We help by letting the other person have a safe place to let them out. How do we make it safe? Listen without judgment. The subject just is, it isn’t good or bad. Listen with your full attention. Don’t check your cell phone or watch TV. Make eye contact. Listen – don’t speak, except to ask questions to further your understanding of the issue.

Ask the person how you can help. Let them guide you. Often what you think they need isn’t helpful at all. Sometimes we will suggest what we would like, rather than trying to understand what the person would like. Sometimes people foist their own wishes and needs off on someone else, and walk away, thinking their duty is done.

I’ll give you an example. My brother sent a lily plant to the house when our Mom died. He expected me to plant it and then take care of it as a living memorial to her. I’d spent a year taking care of her, and he left us alone and poor in that time. There was no way I was going to take care of a lily plant, with finicky rules about how you had to dig it up and store the bulbs in a cool dark place every year. I’d just spent a year watching Mom die. I wasn’t prepared to spend time watching this plant die. I chucked that plant into the English Ivy, to let it fend for itself. His gift was worse than useless.

If the thought is what matters, put some thought into it. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you can’t even get near that idea, ask them what would be useful, and do it.

Don’t ever say “I understand.” You don’t. Even if you have been through the exact same circumstance, you can’t understand what it is like for that person. Each person has a different history and a different emotional make-up. So what should you say? Don’t say anything. Ask. Ask the person to tell you more about it. Ask them to tell you how they feel. Feelings are what matter here.

One of the worst things you can ask is “why”. Don’t use the word “why” at all. “Why” puts people on the defensive. You can say “Can you tell me more about…” for instance.

Remember that it isn’t your pain. This may sound odd to say, but it may help you to have a sense of distance. By not trying to process your own pain, you can be there to help the other person process her pain.

Just wanting to be of help is helpful. It is OK to say you don’t know how to help. Just don’t leave. Keep up with your usual routine with each other. Have tea together, go to movies, have lunch. Make a point of spending time together.

If it is hard for you to be around her pain, remember that it is harder for her to be in the middle of it. You lessen her pain by sharing it with her. And you gain strength and knowledge for the next time you have a friend who is in pain.