Listened When There Were No Words to be Heard

Sarah Byrne, Staff Chaplain, NYU Langone Medical Center

I met Martha when she was recovering from cardiac surgery on the Intensive Care Unit. She would reach out to anyone who passed by her bed. Her nurse told me that she was “needy.” A tightly fitted oxygen mask precluded conversation, but her wide, teary eyes cried out for companionship.
I introduced myself to Martha and then sat beside her. As she grasped my hand tightly I noticed a rosary dangling on her bed rails, and offered a prayer for comfort and healing. At the end of the visit, she scrawled on a pad: “Come back.”
The next day I met Martha’s daughter, who informed me that her father, Martha’s husband of forty-five years, had died the week before. Suddenly, I understood what was behind the pleading eyes. Martha was acutely, deeply grieving.
Martha, while aware and alert, was on a ventilator due to complications in her recovery. She could not speak, and her hands were losing their ability even to scrawl. This presented a challenging pastoral situation. I wondered, How can I help her grieve when she can’t express herself? How can she lament without a voice?
I sought to provide a safe, compassionate place in which to address Martha’s grief, where we could draw upon her long-practiced faith as a resource. At the next visit I raised the subject of her husband’s death and her eyes widened as she began crying and patting my hand. She appeared deeply sad and relieved. I believe that she wanted someone to address her grief, which was at the forefront of her thoughts and engulfing her heart.
Over the next several weeks, I sought to give voice to Martha’s loss as best as I could, humbly and gently. I was treading on sacred ground. I read Psalms reflecting the grief I imagined: I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched (Ps. 69).
I was mindful of these ‘deep waters,’ and I was careful not to leave Martha in the midst of them at the end of our visits. I voiced her anger and sadness while offering hope and trust in God, following a theme we often see in the Psalms. Psalm 13 affirms God’s love in the midst of tears: How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?…I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
As professional chaplains, we are called to offer a courageous listening presence. When there are no words to be heard, we listen at the ‘heart’ level, drawing upon our shared experiences of love, loss, and grief. We give voice to what must be said.
Martha and I had many conversations consisting of nods, hand squeezes, tears, and Psalms, though I never did hear her voice. After two months in Intensive Care, she passed away. She and her husband were buried next to each other—reunited, I believe, with the God who listens and loves us in deep waters.