For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘visitation

I spend a lot of time making pastoral visits to aging members who are no longer able to attend worship, whether visiting them at home or in senior living facilities. Currently, there are 20 households on that list, and I try to see most of them every 4-8 weeks, depending upon their situation. I celebrate Holy Communion with many of them at every visit, although some prefer it only at holiday times.

Most of the time, I wonder about the value of these visits. Yes, it is a comfort to lonely or isolated individuals that the pastor comes to see them, to express the church’s ongoing care and concern. Sometimes—oftentimes—visits from lay people can accomplish the same message even better. We often just chit-chat, catching up on news from the church family. We pray, but we don’t talk about the deepest things of the heart.

Until we do talk about those things. And then things get very profound, very fast. Although I always try to invite those deeper conversations, it still catches me off guard when people venture there. I am surprised by how much people yearn to unburden their hearts to me. They move swiftly sometimes from chatting about the weather to disclosing deep secrets of their past. We visit five, ten, 20 times and tell the same pleasant stories, until the one time I come and they open up about the guilt and self-doubt they harbor, the questions they have about God and salvation, the fears and anguish they bear for themselves or members of their family.

I become a secret-keeper, a holder of stories, a bearer of burdens. I hear stories that break my heart, things I can never forget, sadness that cannot be overcome. Long after the teller of the story has died, I remember.  On the next visit, when we return to talking about the latest church social or who’s been in the hospital lately, I wonder if they will want to talk about it again. Always, I pray, and through those prayers I try to surround us with comfort and forgiveness and hope, to release the story to God’s hands.

I am honored by these confidences, even though sometimes they can feel overwhelming. I am humbled by the trust people place in me, even when it leaves me emotional and exhausted. Most of all, I am grateful that God knows too. I do not carry these stories alone, and it is not upon my shoulders to provide the healing, forgiveness, hope and courage they require. All I have to do is show up every few weeks, ready to talk and to listen about whatever—just as prepared to talk about whatever has been going on, whatever the weather is, and whatever matters most, whatever the Spirit summons. And trust that whatever happens, it matters.

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B celebrated his first Communion today, a few weeks shy of his third birthday. We were visiting a parishioner in a nursing home, taking communion for Christmas. As I was setting it up, he got very inquisitive about what I was doing, and he said, “I want to have communion too!” That was enough to make me say yes.

As a child, my parents decided that we should not take communion until after our confirmation, usually around age 12. Because everyone in my home church went forward to kneel at the altar to commune, I remember feeling conspicuous, excluded and isolated sitting alone in the pew. I remember being angry that people thought I wasn’t old enough to understand, and a sense of righteous indignation that anyone would try to deny me access to Jesus’ own body and blood. Clearly, I understood what communion was all about–I should have been able to partake. This experience has given me a passionate commitment to the openness of the communion table to this day. Christ invited everyone to partake at the table–no one should be denied access to Christ’s table, for any reason.

In reaction, I decided I would never deny B the chance to come to Christ’s table. I also decided that I would not ever allow him to participate without some explanation of what we were doing. This is not “snack time.” Since we will be serving communion at the family-oriented Christmas Eve service, I figured that would be his first time. I had planned to spend some time explaining it in advance. But today he asked to be a part of Christ’s table, and I could not deny him. Prepared or not, today was the day, this nursing home room was the place.

As I filled the tiny cups and stacked the silver platter with wafers, I explained to him that this was very special juice and bread–that we didn’t eat until we heard the story, and that the story was about Jesus. This bread and cup help us remember the story about Jesus. Then I proceeded to perform the short liturgy for home communion. B listened carefully throughout, and paid attention appropriately. He was probably more attentive than the resident we were visiting!

When the time came to serve, I served my parishioner first, then broke my piece in half and gave some to B. He held it until I said, “take and eat,” and he took and ate. I had to tell him to wait, not to grab the tiny cup of juice that was so tempting, but he waited patiently while I served her and took a sip myself before giving him the rest. Then he drank, and sweetly collected the cups and carried them to the trash.

Oh, the life of a preacher’s kid! What an odd collection of spiritual milestones he will have!

Who knows if he will remember this, but it was a special moment for me, to include him in this holy sacrament, to bring him into the circle of Christ’s family table. I pray it will be the first of many, many tastes of the bread and cup, and that he will always feel welcome at the table.

Today, I took B with me to visit two parishioners who reside at a local nursing home. It is a large, well-run facility, where I have visited at least six long-term residents over the last four years. One small wing is for short-term rehabilitation, but the vast majority is for long-term residential care.

One of the women we were visiting has very little family, and no other children in her life. I have been taking B to see her since he was a newborn, and they have a very special relationship. She is weak and requires oxygen, she can barely hear and has a difficult time communicating. The one thing she’ll talk about–with anyone who ever visits–is B, and how much she enjoys his visits. She doesn’t even look at me anymore, it’s all about interacting with B. They play with her stuffed animals, he races cars on her lap blanket, he shows her whatever toy he’s carrying. He holds her hand and we pray together. I have only visited her one time without B since he was born, and she wouldn’t even talk to me.

Today when we showed up, with B in a Santa hat and carrying a gift for his special friend, we were turned away at the door. The receptionist informed us that, because of the swine flu, children under 14 were no longer allowed into the facility. At all.

At first, I assumed they had had an outbreak of flu and were under quarantine, but when I questioned her she said the policy had been in effect for several months, which means my last 3 visits with B were “illegal.” She then moved aside a wheelchair and another sign to render visible the poster announcing the new policy, and opening the door to shoo us out. At this point, I was getting really irritated.

Me: “So, you mean that no children are ever allowed in this facility again?”

Receptionist: “Well, some families get around it by meeting in the conference room, but that’s only for the residents well enough to get to the conference room.” (My two residents are not.)

Me: “So you mean to tell me that none of the residents are allowed to visit with their grandchildren or great-grandchildren for Christmas?”

Receptionist: “Well, we’re trying to protect them from getting sick.”

This is a nursing home–this will likely be the last Christmas for many of their residents. And they have to spend it alone? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Of course, at this point, I just feel awful for the woman we are planning to visit, who had been promised a visit from her special friend B before Christmas, and now gets to be told she is forbidden from ever seeing him again. And for B, who is looking increasingly forlorn. After we get outside, he says, “You can’t visit because of me? I want to be Santa! I want to see (friend)!” He looks like he’s going to cry.

I told him it was not his fault, that there was a sickness going around and they were trying to make sure that no one got sick. But I wanted to cry as well. I will fight this. Before we even got to the car, I had left a message for the chaplain at the facility, who I know well and knows about the special relationship between B and this resident. I haven’t heard back yet.

I understand the need to keep children away from medical facilities, including hospitals and even rehab hospitals. Those are temporary situations, and unless they need to say a final goodbye in the face of a terminal illness, there is no reason young children need to be in a hospital. But this is a RESIDENCE. This is people’s home, where they live for years. This policy basically means that once Grandma goes to live at the nursing home, she’s never allowed to see her grandchildren again until they turn 14. Absurd!

I know B will see his special friend again, because they need each other and I will fight and even sneak him in the back door if that’s what it takes. But I am so sad for all the residents who will have to spend the holiday season isolated from the grandchildren and great-grandchildren they love, those who give light to their lives and meaning to their days. This is a season when those in long-term care facilities feel a special sense of isolation and loneliness–this policy of isolation cuts off the one lifeline most of them have, their connection to family and the next generation. I am so sad.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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