The Danger of Caring

It was a bad situation from the start.

As soon as the patient entered the ER, we knew there would not be a happy ending. Even if the patient made it, too many things had gone wrong and there would be lasting complications. And that was a sizable “if”.

I was with the patient’s family early on. A family member arrived just after the paramedics, and I stayed with him throughout. As they gave good news followed by bad news, I stood beside him. He hugged me. He cried on me. He asked me for hope I couldn’t honestly give him.

I ended up being pulled away for other things, and the patient was admitted to a room. Shortly after, though, I was paged to them again. The doctor was giving bad news. The worst news. I should be there for support.

As the doctor talked, the family denied. This can’t be it, they would say. It is, he assured them. The doctor was kind but firm. He told them to call in family.

Then something happened that I hadn’t seen before in the sixteen months that I’ve been a chaplain: the doctor cried as he left the room. Maybe that was what started the nurse crying. Pretty soon everyone was crying.

After I made sure the family was okay, I actually chased down the doctor to see if he was. We talked much longer than I would have expected. He was much more candid than I expected. He’s a human, he said. He cares even when he doesn’t seem like it.

I guess that’s the danger of caring. When we allow ourselves to care, we become human. We display emotion when we don’t mean to. We show vulnerability when we don’t want to. People who one would think are immune to difficulties by now, especially people who work with death a lot, end up reacting when they don’t mean to. Sometimes we don’t like it, but often we can’t control it.

I was called up one last time to pray with the family just before the patient died. “Dear God,” I started…and then I stopped. There were no words. Someone was dying who shouldn’t have been. People would be left parentless, childless who shouldn’t be. There was no sense in what had happened. I cried and eventually choked out something incoherent.

As I talked with the family after it was all over, the patient’s mother told me how much she appreciated how kind everyone had been. She said all of the staff had been so caring, and she pointed out that she had seen the doctor cry. That meant the world to her, she said, that someone who is accustomed to saving lives would demonstrate so much emotion at losing one.

We may feel weak when our emotions sneak up on us. It may not feel comfortable to us. But sometimes, our raw emotions may be exactly what someone else needs to see.

Maybe caring isn’t as dangerous as we think.