Compassion makes dignity possible

The story is told of the elderly man who was on comfort care in his community hospital.  His wife of over 60 years had preceded him in death.  He had one son and he kept asking his nurse to see if she could contact his son for a final visit.  Later that night a man in his fifties was walking down the hall and seemed to be looking for someone.  The nurse assumed it was the dying man’s son and quickly ushered him into the room.  
The dying man was overjoyed and wrapped his arms around the visitor’s neck.  He wept.  The visitor sat down beside the dying elder and held his hand.  They spoke little, but the patient kept thanking his son for being with him.  The old man died about two o’clock in the morning.  
The young man got up to leave.  The nurse said, “Thank you for being here for your dad.  I know you were such a comfort to him.”
The visitor said, “But he is not my dad.  I never met the man in my life.”
“Then why did you stay?” asked the nurse.
“Because no one wants to die alone,” answered the visitor.  “And I thought my presence here would bring him some comfort.”
Every one of us can practice healing presence.  In his book, The Art of Being a Healing Presence, James Miller wrote, “Healing presence is the condition of being consciously and compassionately in the present moment with another or with others, believing in and affirming their potential for wholeness, wherever they are in life.”  Notice that Miller did not say potential for curing or healing, but the potential for wholeness.  Even as we might be dying with cancer we can still be whole persons with meaning and purpose in our lives.
Healing presence is not about solving unanswerable questions like, “Why does God let this happen,” or saying a word of wisdom that takes away the pain and grief.  It means being with others in their pain and grief, fully aware of and conscious that compassion makes dignity possible in disease and death.  
I knew of a nurse who was attending a hospice patient.  The man had absolutely no family or close friends.  During her evening rounds she went into the patient’s room.  He was crying uncontrollably.  She asked his what was wrong.  
“I am so frightened of dying by myself,” replied the man. The nurse promised the man that she would return to his room after her shift was over.  She kept her word.  The patient had tears running down his face.  He quivered in his bed.  The nurse climbed up onto the patient’s bed and stuck her arm under his head as if to cradle him.  Within a few moments the patient calmed down and fell asleep.  He died in her compassion a few hours later.
You do not have to be a chaplain, doctor, or nurse to practice healing presence.  In fact, your presence might mean more to your family and friends than any minister’s or physician’s.

Chaplain Gary Blaine, D.Min., provides Pastoral Care at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital.  He received his Doctorate of Ministry from Emory University, and holds certifications as a grief counselor and a grief group facilitator.  He can be reached via e-mail at