These days I am sensitive to words that promote anxiety. My own fear alarm goes off every time I hear a news story about “alarming new developments” about the coronavirus. Hearing about “fears of a pandemic” makes me fearful, reading that “hospitals will be overwhelmed” overwhelms me. I am not counseling the sugarcoating of news, the passing on of platitudes, or offering dismissive assessments of the magnitude of what we face. But emotion-laden words stir emotions.
Since I work as a chaplain and my husband is a nurse, we have lots of consultations at the dinner table, at least when our schedules at the hospital let us have dinner together. Right now he is putting in writing what he’s learned over 20 years of practice about what works with his patients. He is a pediatric nurse, so his patients are children, as well as their families.
A few years back he took some training in hypnosis. One technique he explained to me that makes a lot of sense for my practice is the importance of how you say things. You can ask, for example, “Are you comfortable?” instead of “Are you in pain?” The two words “pain” and “comfort” suggest different things. By what we say, we can suggest different ways for a person to process their experience. (Yes, there is empirical evidence for this.)
Because I’m a writer as well as a chaplain, this makes eminent sense to me. Poetry works because it says something in a unique, imagination-grabbing way. Prayer and sermons have special rhythms and images. I am always amazed when rote prayers give comfort in times of distress. The words don’t even have to be new or original.
When I talk to families as their loved ones are dying, I often talk about love. I tell them to surround this person with their love. I want love to be present in the air even as the patient’s breath fades. I recently worked with a critically ill Sikh patient whose adult child told me it was important that a recording of spiritual teachings play continuously in his room so that the patient would hear holy words as he departed from life. I asked the nurse to honor this request.
The Bible is one traditional source of words that provide strength and comfort: I will be with you always. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. From the Qur’an: God will bring a people whom He loves and who love him. These religious words have secular counterparts: Keep calm and carry on.
So when I am working, I think before I speak. No, I don’t always pick the right words. But I find I often say what I need to hear as well as what I hope will be of service.
What do you want to hear? Are you comfortable?
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…”