For many years, Dr Jonathan Ward was a military chaplain. When I talked to Dr Ward about his long career, we touched upon some sensitive topics: Does the presence of a Christian chaplain in the military mean God’s approval of military operations? How does a military chaplain serve in the context of a conflict?
But what I have chosen to share with the readers of ST Network and Semnele timpului is the discussion we had about the 15 years spent working as a chaplain in a pediatric oncology hospital.1
What is specific to working with children and their families who have to deal with a lethal disease, especially in the terminal phases?
When we say pediatrics we actually refer to a wide range of ages, from newborns up until 20 years of age. I think one of the most difficult experiences I had happened right before I started as chaplain in the pediatric section. I was called to the Intensive Care Unit, the cardiology section, where a newborn had been brought in. When I came close to her bed, the girl had a thick piece of tape stuck on her chest, right by her heart and you could see her heart beating. I stopped, I turned around and I left. I was not ready for something like this.
Despite the many cases of trauma you have dealt with, this was too much…
I believe it was too much because she was a child. But I learned how to work in the pediatric section and to see the illnesses children can suffer from. Working in the oncology department, I’ve seen a large number of children with cancer. It was very difficult to watch their medical courses. In the first six months, my stress level was very high. I have never before experienced such emotions connected to ill children, who were in pain, whose parents stood daily beside their beds, begging God, negotiating with Him, hoping for a miracle, and struggling when they saw life leaving their child’s body.
People believe children should not die before their parents.
Of course. But, in that hospital, this happens all the time. I think one of the most heartrending human experiences is that of a parent losing their child. I read in a book that women have two types of cries, different from any other type of cry: one when they give birth, and another when their child dies. I saw mothers and fathers who had been told nothing else could be done. When the doctor had to announce the death of the child, I saw mothers screaming, making a sound which pierced through the walls of the hospital. I also saw mothers who were very quiet, which, like butter melting on a hot knife, collapsed on the floor and did not even have the strength to cry—they were just sobbing, crushed. I have seen fathers who, after hearing the news of the death of their child, punched the wall so hard they crushed their knuckles, and fathers who cried uncontrollably.
It’s very difficult for men because we like to solve things. And there’s nothing left to solve in such cases.
It’s true. There are things you cannot solve.
Let’s go back to the emotional changes that the people caring for these children go through.
I believe that, in order to work with children, you need to take good emotional care of yourself, because the emotional impact they have on you is big. When you see an adult suffering from cancer, from a blood disease, or another deadly illness, you feel compassion but you say to yourself: “This person has lived his or her life. He or she is a grownup. We will do all we can to help them survive, but we can’t tell what will happen.” But when we see children dying, it’s harder. So, you must take care of yourself, process your emotions with help from professionals and coworkers in order to be able to focus better on your job.
What can you do for these parents who are devoted to their suffering children?
I remind parents that they need to take care of themselves. They dedicate themselves, body and soul, to their children, they refuse to leave the hospital and their child’s sickbed, and they become exhausted. I need to tell them that, in order to best support their children, they need to go home, get some sleep, eat, drink enough water and go on living, because they cannot stop.
They fear something might happen exactly when they are not there.
Yes. I always tell these parents: “This is a faith journey for you now. Do you trust God? If you refuse to leave your child’s bed out of fear that something might happen in your absence, does that show you trust Him?”
You cannot control everything.
Of course. Staying beside someone’s sickbed seven days a week will not prevent or stop the illness, but it will get to you. Parents need to trust God, because He is ready for any result.
This is easier said than done.
Certainly. And it’s a long process.
In the beginning, parents are in denial. They need time.
I think it’s similar to the process described by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She spoke of five stages. When the child is diagnosed with cancer, parents gradually go through denial, anger and negotiation. In many families a sense of guilt emerges: “What have we done? How could have we prevented this?”
People want to understand what happened and who’s to blame.
Yes. And they try to negotiate: “God, give me his illness and heal my child!”
When a child suffers from cancer, is it possible to identify the mistake made? Are things always that clear?
I don’t think so. Especially when it comes to children, we do not understand the reasons very well. What I can do to help parents is to advise them to focus on the present time, to ask themselves how they can help their child feel more comfortable, lead a life as normal as possible, celebrate their life for as long as they’ve got left and to continue hoping. As long as the child is still breathing and their heart is still beating, they must keep hoping. I always tell parents they need two things to go through the moment when their child is diagnosed with cancer: good medicine, and many prayers.
They need both.
They need God’s strength, because He is the One who gives people the knowledge they need to practice medicine, and they need prayers to bring them close to God, in those conversations which only they and He can understand.
This right here is crucial: People need to cast blame or responsibility on someone. And, if they are not the ones responsible, then who else might that be, but God? What can you do when parents blame God?
It’s so easy yet inappropriate to say: “It’s not His fault, you’re wrong!” “Stop saying this lest God shall punish you!” When I was a child, I was always being told: “Never doubt God! Never ask why! Accept the situation!” But I have come to believe that God is bigger than that. He allowed Job to ask questions.
To ask many questions…
Job did not understand why he suffered. “I was a good man. I have cared for my family. I talk about You wherever I go.” He did not exactly understand God’s plan, so God had to help Job understand.
God did not tell him, “Be quiet!”. He allowed him to speak. After letting Job and his friends speak, He said: “Now I want you to listen to Me. I will help you understand what is happening”. I think this is what God does in those quiet times with the parents, when He offers them a peace only He is able to offer. But I think it’s all right to doubt God and ask why. I think it’s all right to be angry with Him. God is big enough to understand the situation.
Do you dare repeat this?
Yes, He is big enough to understand this, to understand our doubts about Him.
So He accepts us having doubts.
I believe so, because He knows we do not understand why all the things in the world are happening. Of course, everything began with sin. Centuries ago, Adam and Eve made a decision which brought upon them a calamity whose effects we are still feeling, until Jesus will come back and straighten things out. But there are things we do not know or understand. In Deuteronomy 29:29 we read: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children”. These “revealed things” are so that we may listen to and follow Him.
We must accept our condition: we don’t know everything and God has not revealed it all.
Another verse, from Isaiah, shows that God’s thoughts are different from mine and His ways are different from mine. He is holy, I’m not. I have been transformed, forgiven, I am in the process of becoming like Christ, but I still have thoughts, human weaknesses, and a limited mind. I cannot go as far as God. I cannot see the end from the beginning, but He can.
I always try to help parents see that we do not always understand God’s will and providence, but we trust Him nonetheless. When I was 16, one of my best friends’ mother, who was sick and knew she would die, told us while on her sickbed: “God is too good and too wise to do something wrong. I’ll trust Him till I die”. I will never forget this.
When we have doubts about God or we are angry with Him, we tend to either rebuke Him or to keep our distance. What would be a better approach, besides putting Him in His place, or distancing ourselves from Him?
I can share with you my method. For a chaplain, it’s all about presence. We stand by people in their darkest hours. Our role is not to guide them or lead them in one direction or another, but to be with them, no matter what they feel, whatever their experience is. We are to be, perhaps, silent companions or compassionate listeners. Our role is to listen to their experiences and keep their most personal, maybe even their most troubling and tormenting, thoughts a secret.
When we are there, in silence, as a symbol of God’s presence and maybe by saying the right words, we allow them to discuss their thoughts and emotions with someone who does not confront them, redirect them, judge them, who does not distance himself from them, but stands with them in those difficult moments, saying: “I will not leave you. I am here. Your heart is troubled but we will go through this together.” I cried, I got angry, and suffered together with many patients and their families.
So it’s okay to say nothing. We tend to look down upon Job’s friends, who, for a long time, were silent when they were actually showing compassion.
Yes. I believe we overlook this. I am very glad you mentioned this. Job’s friends came to be with him in a very hard trial and there were times when they spoke a lot, but there were times when they were silent, without leaving him. The fact that they remained beside him, in the midst of suffering, sickness and Job’s own doubts, is very eloquent.
They probably helped him most when they were silent, giving him the opportunity to cry and complain.
Yes. Sometimes we just need people to be with us in our hardships without saying anything. I believe there are times when the greatest gift you can give someone is silence. Your presence, silence, and being there for them.
Can you share with us a situation which moved you in an extraordinary way?
I’ve come to be amazed by children’s resilience. I’ve seen children suffering from sickle cell anemia, an illness characterised by excruciating pain, or children with a marrow transplant. Resilience means to have the inner strength to recover, to move on, and not to give up when the going gets rough, to be strong, to keep smiling and find joy, harmony and balance in life. This is how we become resilient.
We can imagine an elastic. It’s flexible, it comes back to its original form after being stretched.
Yes. That difficult moment impacts you, but you recover. I have seen children going through all those tedious investigations, torturing treatments, and then coming round and playing in the corridors.
We often encourage parents, saying: “Your child is very tough. He is able to endure a lot and to come back with a smile on his face.” And we add: “Where do you think he gets that? From you!” Parents feel encouraged, realising that their little one took that trait over from them, either through birth or education. We often see children giving spiritual lessons to their parents. I was once called to the Intensive Care Unit, where we had a 9 year-old we all knew was not going to survive. She was a pretty little girl, and had very little time left. Her parents, brothers and sisters were standing next to her. The doctor, nurses, and others were also present. Her mother was holding her in her arms and the girl started breathing more and more heavily. She looked at her mother and said: “Mommy, my time has come. It will all be all right.” After just a couple of minutes, she stopped breathing.
She had taught us all a vital lesson, which was useful to her parents and to all of us after her departure. She prepared her mother for the inevitable and said: “It will all be all right.” I remember she said it with a smile. Besides this early maturing, many of these children come to have a close relationship with Jesus Christ.
Tell us more about this.
Together with a friend I wrote a book about suffering children. We both met children who had an amazing friendship relationship with Jesus. And it seems Jesus also had an amazing relationship with them. Often they said they saw angels, they were talking to Jesus who told them something, and they’d interact with unseen realities. We are most probably inclined to doubt this, but let’s not forget we’re talking about children and teenagers who don’t usually talk about religion that much. In those moments, we hear their testimonies of what they have seen, what they have heard, about paradise, about their experiences with angels and Jesus, who is holding their hand and is comforting them. I have thus come to understand and accept that, in these moments, Jesus has a special relationship with these children and they have one with Him. And I believe that this is the special support God offers them in these terrifying moments.
I am reminded of an interesting story, perhaps a bit irreverent, but I dare tell it in this context. During drawing lessons, the teacher went from one child to another, looking at what they were trying to draw. Looking at the sketches of one girl, he did not understand what it was she was drawing, so he asked: “What are you drawing?” She answered: “A portrait of God.” “But people do not know how He actually looks.” The girl’s answer left him speechless: “They will find out as soon as I’m done!”
Indeed, in the context of our discussion this becomes something very serious. In the innocence of their relationship with Christ, from a limited experience, they can teach us things about God we know nothing of. Jesus said we must be like little children. In the Bible, He offered children special revelations, as was the case with Samuel, Joseph, and others, who heard God’s voice when adults did not.
Thank you! You allowed us to step, by your side, onto this sacred ground trod by children who, although they may die before their time, make us rich with wisdom in a unique way.