“I wait to see if they come back”: Shelly and the Pain of Love

“My life’s been like a Stephen King novel.”

That was how “Shelly” described her life to me, and it turned out to be fairly accurate.

I had been requested to see Shelly at a skilled facility by the staff there. She had been the roommate of one of our patients who had died recently (I’ll call her Mrs. Bea), and the staff felt that she could use some support. I don’t get requests for visits like these often, and usually when I do I find that it’s more often the staff that have issues with coping rather than the person they’re directing me to. That was not the case here.

Shelly was in bed, surrounded by pillows keeping her upright, her lunch still in front of her. When I walked in to her room she at first looked shocked. She blinked a few times and after an awkward minute she exclaimed “you look just like my son!” After some laughter we settled in to conversation. I said that I was from the hospice that had cared for her roommate and heard that she had been close to her.

Shelly said that she and her were “like sisters” even though she was white and her roommate was black. They knew how to make each other laugh and watched out for each other in the facility. As Mrs. Bea’s declined, her personality changed. She was more confused and agitated, crying out apparently in pain even before the nurses tried to move her. She even lashed out at Shelly, saying that she had tried to murder her.

“I knew it wasn’t her though. It was her brain. I was a neurosurgery nurse at the hospital and know all about how your brain can make you do things you don’t want to do.” I told her how remarkable it was that she seemed to be in the perfect place for her to care for her roommate and understand her disease where others might push her away. Shelly said that she had done the same for her. “I tend to push people away, but every time I did that with her she would just come back and tell me that she loved me.” I asked her to say more about pushing people away. That’s when the Stephen King novel began.

Shelly’s father died when she was eight. After that, she said, her mother emotionally abandoned her and her siblings. It seemed like her mother fell into a deep depression and simply couldn’t care for them. She never felt or experienced any love from her mother. It was what some would call a “sick system”, where the sources of love in her life were erratic and often painful. She grew up in this difficult, alienating environment and found no relief in her marriage. Her husband was psychologically and emotionally abusive toward her and their children. She said that she learned to keep people at bay, often testing them by treating even her friends poorly to see if they would stay by her side. It was a defense mechanism that kept her safe and lonely. Love was an open invitation to harm and abuse, and as much as she longed for it she feared it at the same time.

Her children, raised by a fractured and distant mother, fell in to drugs. Her daughter, she said, even plotted to kill everyone in the family. “My son found a copy of ‘The Anarchists Cookbook’ along with a notebook of how she was going to kill us. I told the police and they said that they had enough to charge her with conspiracy to commit murder. So they arrested her.” One of her sons now cares for her daughter in some fashion; she doesn’t know because she doesn’t communicate with them. Her other son is her lifeline to the world. “He was on heroin but had enough sense to see how bad things were and get into treatment.” His treatment requires that he live a few hours from her though, so they don’t see each other. “That’s why I was so shocked to see you, because you look just like him!”

On top of this emotional trauma was the physical trauma of having health problems since the age of seven. She’d had multiple surgeries on her abdomen and was in the facility now recovering from several surgeries she had on her feet. She was in near constant pain, both physically and emotionally.

We talked for a bit about how she distances herself from others to protect herself. Shelly was upset that she had been rude to one of the overnight nurses whom she liked, and we talked about how that’s probably a part of this cycle she finds herself in. She had a remarkable grasp of this dynamic, seeing it as part of a lifelong pattern she continues today.

“What happens when you distance someone like that?” I asked.

“I wait to see what they’ll do. I wait to see if they’ll come back.”

“What about this nurse?”

“I’ll wait and see.”

I thought for a minute. “What if you talked to her just like you’re talking to me right now? What if you said you were sorry?” Her face seemed frozen like stone. “What do you think would happen?”

For a few minutes we were silent. I could see her anxiety in her face and body. She had spent a lifetime shoring up her defenses because she never knew when she would be attacked, even by someone she cared for. To lower the gate was a frightening prospect.

I broke the tension. “Think about it. Maybe, in your own way, think about what you can do to make things better in this relationship.”

“Ok, I’ll think about that.”

After another bit of silence, she gave a laugh. “I don’t know why I told you everything I just did. I don’t do that. I just started…and it all came out. I don’t know why I did that!”

I looked down at my watch and found that an hour had passed and that I needed to head off to another visit. We had talked about her faith earlier in the visit, how she had been raised in a strict Catholic home and treated roughly by the nuns in her school (“They were probably all on menopause!”), and had then tried out a Pentecostal church (“Ever see ‘The Blues Brothers’? It was like that!”). I told her that I needed to go and thanked her for sharing so much with me. I asked her if I could pray with her and she, with a look between joy and discomfort, said yes. I thanked God for the day and for creation, I thanked Him for Shelly and for her story. I prayed for her healing as well as for her family, especially her son. I prayed for her dream of getting her own apartment and a dog. Occasionally I’d hear her respond “yes!”

I ended the prayer, and she said “…and thank you for my new friend.”

I asked if she’d like me to come back and she accepted. As I left I spoke with the nurses there who wondered how the visit had went, I was a bit surprised at how little they knew about her.

“Was she a nurse or something?”

“Yes – a neurosurgery nurse. We talked about her kids too.”

“She has kids?”

I was reminded in this visit how painful some of our stories are, and the healing power of telling those stories. I was furthermore reminded how just listening to those stories is often the best therapy we can provide.

One thought on ““I wait to see if they come back”: Shelly and the Pain of Love

  1. This is a powerful witness to the gift of a chaplain’s skills. I wonder why we chaplains always describe our work as “just listening.” You described listening, discerning the woman’s pain, put forth appropriate questions in order to encourage her to continue sharing, validated her experiences, were non -judgmental, empowered her by asking her permission to pray … need I go on? As my social worker friend always asks me, “If all chaplains do is listen then why not have a volunteer go in?”
    Your powerful example of ministry demonstrates a SKILLED listener rather than a friendly visitor. Well done! Thank you.

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