Some weeks ago, I walked up at to our inpatient mental health and detox unit with the purpose of inviting patients to our 1:00 p.m. spirituality group session. Today was no different than any other Thursday. Some patients were in bed, some were wandering through the hallways, and others were sitting in the day room.
It is our practice to knock on patient doors and give a personal invitation to those who might want to attend our group. We recognize that a cheerful introduction, a warm and heartfelt greeting, the mention of the group topic for the day or simply establishing compassionate eye contact with a patient may somehow make a small deposit or give encouragement and a reminder that God knows they are here…and so do we.
Our group topic was “getting unstuck” and we dealt with the challenge of moving forward in areas of our lives where we felt we were having trouble letting go, especially in the area of forgiveness. Twelve patients participated in the discussion, watched the movie clip I’d prepared from Robert DeNiro’s “The Mission”, listened to the musical meditation and shared their stories.
Half way through the group, an elderly, bald, toothless gentleman staggered in. I had seen him earlier, buried in his bed and therefore assumed he would not be attending. During group he kept his eyes shut and said nothing the entire time. His arms shook so violently during our discussion that a patient flashed a concerned look at me, to which I forwarded one of reassurance.
Although I never know if a patient is detoxing from substance abuse or if they are being treated for an acute mental health concern, I assumed this man was going through withdrawal and experiencing delirium tremors. The group ended and after a few patients made requests for individual sessions, he struggled up out of his chair. He seemed so frail and unsteady on his feet, so I offered my arm to him for support and walked him back to his room. During that brief five minute stroll, I was reminded again that you must never “assume” you know someone’s story. I was surprised when he actually spoke and told me his name was Jack. He added, “I knew the minute you knocked on the door that God had not forgotten about me, that is why I wanted to come to group today.”
Suddenly, he had my full attention.
He went on to tell me that his wife had suddenly died a year ago, shortly after Christmas and that he was grieving her death terribly. He confessed that he had attempted suicide and remarked that living without his wife was harder than maintaining his sobriety which he reported he had done for over 22 years. Tears overcame him as we reached his room, so I made sure he was sitting securely on the edge of his bed before he spoke again. Despite the appearance of a man with mild Cerebral Palsy, a speech impediment, scabs on his arms, a crippled hand and rather ragged clothes, he spoke articulately, compassionately and with humility and faith.
Jack believed that he was responsible for his wife’s death. In his distress, he said, “I should have taken better care of her, maybe she would not have died, it was all my fault.” I assured him of God’s promise from Psalm 139 which says, “All our days are ordained and are in His book, before we live even one of them.” I told him God had his wife in his care and nothing he could have done or not done would have changed the day of her “commencement” into heaven.
His tears stopped suddenly and he just stared. Peace seemed to flood over his face. I offered to pray for him. I was reminded of Jesus’ promise to not leave us comfortless, but to come to us. I told Jack he could lie down now on the bed he’d neatly made and that his only “assignment” was to “lean into and rest on the Lord.”
As I left his room, I looked back at Jack, now relaxed, laying down and noticed a sun beam pouring in through his window onto the end of his bed. Jack shared his good news when he called back to me as I walked out the door, repeating again and again, “I knew God had not forgotten me, because you came to my door.”