After training to become a hospital chaplain, I quickly discovered that I still had more learning opportunities. Those teaching moments began when I accepted my first chaplain position at Houston Northwest Medical Center in the early 1990s.
I spent most of those early days on rounds through patient rooms, in family meetings and the emergency room. My rounds often took me past our glass-enclosed surgical waiting room, an open-air affair filled with enough couches and chairs to accommodate 30 people.
While walking past the room, I would search for those with spiritual needs. If I saw someone crying, nervously pacing, arguing or praying, I would offer prayer or counsel. If not, I pressed on to patient rooms.
On one particularly busy day, I was scurrying past the room when my peripheral vision caught an OR nurse comforting a weeping woman. The nurse, whose name I best remember as Jill, worked for a popular surgeon. Knowing that she was well-liked for her spiritual manner, I quickened my pace in my belief that the tearful woman had found a caring heart.
I was a hundred feet down the hallway when I heard the waiting room door spring open and a distant voice call, "Chaplain." The faintness of the call tempted me to justify my hectic agenda by pretending I hadn't heard.
Nevertheless, I turned about to greet Jill just outside the waiting room.
She nodded discreetly toward the woman behind the glass and explained that her mother's surgery had gone terribly wrong. Now she was bleeding uncontrollably and would be dead in the next few minutes.
"Chaplain, I need you stay with the daughter while I return to the OR."
I paused only long enough for Jill to hook my elbow and draw me into the waiting room.
"This is our chaplain," she told the startled woman. "He's here to offer comfort." Jill laid bridging hands between the woman and me before making a quick exit to the OR.
The woman was youthfully dressed in a pantsuit, but the shock in her face made the case for a much older person. Though bent in grief, she offered a hand of greeting. It fell limp even as I took it.
Now alone with her in an empty waiting room, I motioned for her to sit with me. Congested silence filled the awkward movement as we both realized how untenable Jill's promise was that I could bring solace.
How was I supposed to console someone who neither knew me nor requested my presence? I didn't know anything about her faith, her relationship or what she understood about the debacle in the OR.
Thinking the best response would be to pronounce what we were likely both thinking, I leaned forward and lightly touched the woman's kneecap with my fingertips.
"Look," I said, "You and I both know that there is nothing I can say that will make this better. Can I just wait with you ..." I took a deep breath before concluding my question. "while your mother dies?"
She bowed her head to the truth of my final verb, and with tears falling to the carpet, nodded her assent.
I've shared the woman's story with dozens of audiences over the years and each time I do, I recall a much deeper understanding of a profoundly simple truth about comforting people.
The right words aren't nearly as important as the right presence. Or, put another way, a caring silence paints a picture worth a thousand words.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of "No Small Miracles." He is an Air National Guard chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit thechaplain.net.