A handsome, charming twenty-eight year old, “Michael” had spent recent years making money, dating successful women, wining and dining and feeling fulfilled. I met Michael in an isolated, stark white room, in the locked psychiatric unit of the hospital where I served as chaplain. Michael had attempted to take his own life the night before, by swallowing extreme amounts of painkillers.

A handsome, charming twenty-eight year old, “Michael” had spent recent years making money, dating successful women, wining and dining and feeling fulfilled. I met Michael in an isolated, stark white room, in the locked psychiatric unit of the hospital where I served as chaplain. Michael had attempted to take his own life the night before, by swallowing extreme amounts of painkillers.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
- John 1:1

What a soul-shock it must have been to awaken from an anticipated death. My heart felt full with the heaviness of his story as I entered his room. My intention was to provide a safe space for him to begin to face his deeply complex and painful emotions.

Michael’s chart read “Atheist.” As it turned out, Michael had spent a good amount of time thinking about God. (In my experience, many atheist patients are quite willing to talk to chaplains, because they take the subject of religion seriously and have devoted real thought to it.) Once he decided that I was a non-threatening presence, Michael chose to share his pain with me.

Raised by a zealous and devout Christian mother, he saw her faith as legalistic and superstitious. Michael devoted himself to understanding his experiences—his world, his work, his relationships—from a non-religious perspective. He took in a confusing world, and tried to formulate a worldview from it. Not surprisingly, this, along with a tendency toward depression, a series of losses, and a lack of expressed love in his family, led him to a path of isolated despair.

Michael wanted to die because he thought life was meaningless and that in the grand scheme, his small existence did not matter. He looked around at his world—of ‘plastic’ people focused on money and fleeting romantic encounters, a world of death, poverty, evil, and injustice—and concluded that if there was a God, He was horribly strange, and if there wasn’t a God, then life was utterly fleeting and empty. Either way, the prospect of non-existence seemed better.

I sat with Michael for an hour and a half. I felt the burden of his despair physically, in my body and heart. I sought to listen deeply to him. I knew not what to say. In my soul, I was aware of a slight struggle between wanting him to feel God’s love and knowing that I should not be overtly ‘theological’ at that moment.

I kept silent. Michael was highly sensitive to spiritual issues; stunningly, his own mother had yelled at him that very morning, telling him that he was now guaranteed a place in Hell for his suicide attempt. He was deeply vulnerable, a wounded soul.

So, I sat and cried beside him. We cried on behalf of life lost and found.

We cried because it is easy to lose sight of joy, connection and love when the world is overwhelming. We cried because there is so much pain, injustice, and brokenness in the world. We cried with questions: Should we choose to become numb and disengage from the struggles inside us and around us, or should we experience them and try to live through them? Should we risk joy, risk heartbreak? Where is the meaning of life, at the end of the day, when all is still? Where is a real source of hope?

And I cried inside myself because sometimes I don’t know how to speak of God when the weight of the world is too much to bear. I want to say something real, something profound. I want to minister as I have been ministered to in times of need. I want to reach out with words of compassion.

But I gradually remembered, while perched on the wooden chair aside Michael’s bed, that I must not be a mouthful of well-intentioned words. I must be a whole person actively sharing Michael’s space of suffering. I must, simply, show love.

This love, given from God, is one thing I know in my heart to be true. This love is the ground of my being and I am called, as we all are called, to speak it in ways not limited to words. After all, the most profound phrase God ever “spoke” was a Being, a word of love in Christ, the Word made flesh. An unwavering presence, even a silent one, would speak volumes more than any simple words.

I did not try to persuade Michael of anything. In that moment, it was not appropriate to tell him reasons to live. No ideas for a better life would honor the depths of his pain or drag him out of it. No, I simply needed him to know that for this day, I would stay there. I would love him as a sister in God. He mattered to me; he matters to God.

No fancy words were needed. The Word was all that was needed—the indwelling presence of God with us. It is a nearly silent presence, a still, small voice, a quiet fullness in the midst of emptiness.

This love sits with us in our grief. It cries with us as Jesus did for Lazarus. It speaks creation into being; it breathes a word of life into death, coming to dwell in the world and in our hearts. It seeks us out amidst the chaos of unknowing and fear. This Love stays with us in a stark, white hospital room.

Sarah Byrne is the Chaplain at All Care Hospice in Lynn, Massachusetts. She is endorsed as a chaplain by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and is board certified with the Association of Professional Chaplains. She received a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School, with additional study at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Areas of particular interest for Sarah include ministry in ecumenical and interfaith settings, music and ministry, Hospice and "the remembrance of death" and the role of faith in bereavement care.