Sr. Margaret Oettinger, OP, Director of Pastoral Care, Hospital for Special Surgery, March 2006

One day an administrator at the Hospital for Special Surgery came to me with a patient referral. She told me that an 81-year-old patient—I’ll call him Donald—was due to undergo surgery but would not sign the necessary consent forms. Having heard me use the phrase many times before in other contexts, she asked me if I would “listen to the music behind Donald’s words.” She wanted to know what was going on with him emotionally that made him so resistant at this critical moment?

I visited Donald and asked him to tell me his story. He told me that his wife, who had always been with him during all of his prior hospitalizations, had passed away just five months ago. Normally she would have helped him decide whether or not to sign a pre-surgery consent form.

A religious person, Donald told me that most of the time he had been able to cope with the loss of his wife through prayer. He recalled for me how he had been comforted by the priest’s words at his wife’s funeral, who had said, “Your wife’s life has changed, but it hasn’t ended.”

Still, Donald said, there were times, like now—alone in the hospital and facing the anxiety of surgery—when he was unable to feel his wife’s passing as anything other than an unbearable loss.

Seeing how much he had loved his wife, and how much strength she had clearly given him in times of illness, I asked if I could be present for him at this moment as his wife had been present.

“I wish you would be,” he said.

With that, Donald opened up with me emotionally. He was suddenly able to express so many difficult feelings of grief, anxiety, and, as his scheduled surgery grew closer, vulnerability. There were lots of tears, but they were healthy, cleansing tears.

I was honored that Donald permitted me to serve as a reminder of the presence of God in the same way his wife once had. For that moment it was as if the three of us—Donald, his departed wife, and I—were working out his relationship with God together.

Shortly later Donald agreed to sign the surgery consent form. But that was just one positive outcome. No longer shut off to his own grief, he became a more spiritually and emotionally open person. And perhaps most importantly, he was able to integrate his wife’s loss so that he could call upon her as a source of spiritual strength in times of difficulty.