Sunday, January 28, 2007

Prayer through an interpreter

If you're a hospital chaplain this is a heartbreaking situation you know -- you're with a patient who is clearly in deep spiritual pain and everything in you wants to reach out to him or her. But you don't share a common language and can't understand each other's words. For a non-Spanish speaker (as are most chaplains) like myself, this situation is becoming more and more common. And it's especially tough if you are the kind of chaplain -- like myself -- whose primary way of ministering to people is through (the pastoral) conversation.

Just, today, I was with one family where I faced this situation. It was one of the most challenging situations you can find in the hospital -- the failed pregnancy. The fetal death. The broken hopes and dreams. The unfathomable question of why would God create a world in which people face such suffering and heartbreak. What purpose could it have? Why would God let this happen?

My heart always plunges when I'm on-call and I see that it's the maternity ward that needs me. I deeply fear this situation. I have no answers to offer to either myself or others. All I have is my faith in God and in God's goodness and greatness. And of what value could that possibly be to someone who does not necessarily share my kind of faith.

But this time, my heart plunged even further when the nurse told me that the woman -- her baby had been only 16 weeks old when she lost it -- was a Spanish-only speaker. The nurse even told me that the woman had told her -- through an interpreter -- that she was not religious. What could I possibly offer? I didn't even have any reason to think that this woman would want to see me (chaplains are always called to deaths at our hospital, so the nurse had called me even though there had not been a request from the family).

I even delayed going for a little bit. Then I got called to another death and went to that one first. I offered comfort to a woman who had just lost her husband of 48 years. When I was done with her, I took a deep breath and -- strengthened in my confidence in my sense of my pastoral role by my success in that situation -- started straight for maternity.

When I got there, I learned from the nurse that this was the third time or so that this woman had had a failed pregnancy since her last successful one (she had two children, I believe). The nurse told me that the husband had arrived and that he spoke English well. I decided to go in without calling for an interpreter. But when I got in the nurse asked the woman if she wanted the interpreter and the woman said, yes.

While waiting for the interpreter, I did just say I was sorry for their loss, but then -- for what seemed like a huge passage of time -- I just waited and stood there silently, looking at this woman who was looking not at me, but at the television screen. I tried to focus my attention on the gravity of their loss.

When the interpreter came I again expressed my condolences. I said I had heard that she had had other losses like this and said I imagined this would be a heavy burden upon her. I wanted to ask more questions. It is my practice to try and learn as much as I can about a patient and their current situation before offering a prayer. I believe that (the pastoral) conversation is healing in and of itself, and it helps me to formulate my prayer. I think of my prayer as offering the chaplain's (that is my) hopes for the patient and those hopes are based on what I have been able to learn about the patient's own hopes during our conversation.

But, for reasons of which I am not sure, I felt that that would not be possible here, and that I would do what I have criticized many other chaplains for -- I went almost straight to offering prayer. I was surprised that she said, yes. I asked her what she would like me to prayer for. She seemed confused by the question, but she answered it. She wanted me to bless her child, so that it might go to heaven.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It can be a frightening thing to close your eyes when offering prayer. It feels to me like stepping off the edge of a cliff. The only way to know how your prayer is affecting people is to look upon their faces. But, I took a leap of faith. I trusted that my faith would guide me. I closed my eyes.

It was the second time in only a few days that I had been called upon to prayer through an interpreter (and I had never been asked to do so before!). I kept my statements short and paused to allow the interpreter to repeat them in Spanish. I heard her struggle with some of my words. My prayer went something like this:

Dear Lord.
Father above.
Source of life. [I heard the interpreter struggle with this]
You are the God of compassion.
Please, Lord. Please, let Your arms be open.
Let Your arms be open.
Accept this child, Lord [I heard the interpreter struggle again]
Let her know your comfort.
Let her know your peace.
Let her know your glory.
Hold her in your arms.
And, Lord, too,
Please watch over this mother and this father.
Bring them peace and comfort.
Bring them strength.
Remember them, Lord.
Let Your heart be open.
Listen to their hopes, Lord.
Lord, please. Please Lord.
Hear their prayers.
Let their hopes be Your hopes.
Lord, we thank Your for everything You have given.
Please, Lord, give us strength.
We pray in your name.
When it was over, I said a few more words about hoping they would find peace and healing. The mother said, gracias, and I left.

As I left, I was wondering -- as I think we chaplains so often do -- whether my work had done any good at all, whether it had touched anyone. Whether it was even welcome at all, or if I had been imposing myself and my beliefs on the patient. I was especially curious because I had prayed through an interpreter and because I had offered a spontaneous prayer to people who did not seem used to someone composing a prayer off the top of his or her head. And, so, when I saw the interpreter had followed me out of the room I was about to ask her -- in a dispassionate way as one professional to another -- "did you think that worked? Did I do ok?"

But before I could say anything like that I realized that she was crying and had turned her face towards the wall. I realized that I was now being called to do ministry to staff. And so I approached her and asked if she was alright. [As I did, I heard the parents break out weeping loudly in the room and I closed the door.] She talked about how hard it was and how we don't know the answers to why something like this happens. She told me she had never heard someone offer such a beautiful prayer around something like this.

I think I ministered to her fairly well and she hugged me at one point. But I also think I made some errors that distanced myself from her. I, for example, said several times "these are hard, these are hard."

In retrospect, I think I was talking really about myself in that moment. I've been through quite a few of these now (although in total probably not much more than 10). I've also seen quite a few infant deaths in our emergency department. But the interpreter hadn't. She said that after working nearly two years (I believe) at the hospital and seeing many tough things like deaths coming into our emergency department, she still had never been around this before.

Oddly enough this would have been the first time in my some 15 months at our hospital that I had prayed through an interpreter if the actual first time had not been only days before (Monday, I believe). That was also for a tragic death of a life barely started. Although in that case it was for a baby that had been born and had lived for six months only to die suddenly and be brought into our emergency department.

One of the unfortunate tragedies on top of tragedies that happens sometimes for a family that loses an infant to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or something similar is that initially they may be suspected of some wrongdoing in their child's death. Because of that, this poor family had been denied holding their infant daughter after her death as the coroner needed to investigate by doing an autopsy and didn't want any evidence destroyed by someone touching the body.

And, so, the next day their pediatrician was with them when they came back into the emergency department and the coroner who told them they were cleared. The pediatrician asked for a chaplain to be called and I was the one available. And I offered a similar prayer through the interpreter.

I remember thinking as I was walking back to the office -- "how did I know how to do that?" That is, how did I know how to pray through an interpreter? I had never done it before. How had I known to go slower, to use simpler words and to keep my sentences short and to the point? It felt like I had done it before and was an old hand at it. But the fact was I had never done it before.

What I'm getting at here is that when you work through an interpreter it changes what you do and say. It's not as if you say exactly the same things you would have said if the family had spoken English and the interpreter was just some kind of passive machine translating your words.

Anyway, so it's an interesting question to think about -- how working through interpreters does (or should) change the way we work. What are the limits of working through interpreters? Is it still possible to have your main pastoral tool be (the pastoral) conversation or do you need to use more ritual and prayer (as I did with the first family I wrote about here)? All interesting questions. I wonder if anybody has written about this.

Let me know if you've heard about anything!!! :)

No comments: