I heard myself saying the right things but I felt myself feeling nothing. As we were at the bedside of a yet another dying person, I was disturbed, not at the idea of death or even the mourning of a family but that I had grown so accustomed to the scene. This was after many years of pastoring. Too many funerals, too many emergency room visits, too many death-bed experiences. I had become the pale-faced, cold-blooded undertaker we’ve all seen on old westerns – except that I was supposed to be a pastor. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I really did and was hurting for the family. It was simply a matter of overexposure and lack dealing with grief properly.
I didn’t get numb overnight. Unfortunately, I’ve had more than my share of morbid experiences: Identifying bodies burned in a house fire; gruesome deaths of children; and having to do things in hospitals that nurses didn’t want to do and family members couldn’t bring themselves to do. The breaking point seemed to be the slow and agonizing death of a young friend. I stood helplessly by his side for months and watched as his wife and young son let him go. I helped the undertaker load his lifeless body on the gurney.
I had allowed a shell to build up around my heart. For years, while conducting funerals, I have heard remarks like, “I don’t know how you held it together.” But this was different – this wasn’t composure.
I got my wake up call before it was too late. When I realized I wasn’t experiencing the proper response to death, I knew something had to change. I have since made necessary adjustments. These changes are too personal to share but they were precise and effective.
So how does one in my profession avoid becoming cold-blooded? My few suggestions would be:
Allow yourself to grieve (possibly in private because your breaking down in public could cause a tidal-wave response).
Be sure to debrief after especially difficult experiences.
Seek counsel when the load is heavy. Even those in the helps industries need help.
Pray that God will keep your heart tender. See Ezekiel 36:26.
I don’t regret my life work. In fact, I treasure it and am honored to be called by God to do this work. But I would like to avoid this pitfall in the future and help others to also avoid it.
Don’t let yourself become numb.