When Words Fail

An elderly woman in a hospital bed holding someone's hands
Christine Mao

Christine Mao

Chaplain at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick.

When words fail - how God connects through more than our words

Sue* lay in her bed with bags packed ready to be discharged. Her community carer, Alf* held a cup of water for her to drink swallowing down some tablets. I had visited Sue a few months earlier in the stroke ward when she was first admitted. Her ability to communicate with words was severely limited by the stroke she’d suffered and yet frustration and helplessness clearly crossed her face and appeared in her anguished eyes. Sue smiled when I introduced myself – a smile that appeared to me somewhat rehearsed and plastered on in an attempt to disguise the fact that she couldn’t respond, nor recall who I was. Alf remembered the initial visit I’d made and I asked him how Sue was going. As far as he knew, she was being discharged from the hospital that afternoon. To where – he was not sure, neither was Sue.  

I asked Sue how she was feeling and she replied in faltering words, ‘better… but not quite there yet.’ She seemed to indicate she still wanted more time in hospital to get back to her former health. I understood her desire to have more healing, more time, more hope. She flitted between sentences and words of complete understanding to mumbles and utterances that were difficult to comprehend. I felt frustration on her behalf and for myself at not being able to know if I had fully heard or articulated her needs and feelings.

Even though she had no words to express how she was feeling, she had these ancient, familiar promises and affirmations to hold onto.

After a little while, I explained that I am someone who likes to pray for my patients – whether that is with them or when I leave the room. Sue nodded her head enthusiastically when I asked if she would like me to pray with her there. I felt prompted to read out Psalm 23. As I started to read, Sue’s face lit up and she began to mouth the words of this familiar Psalm. Even though she had no words to express how she was feeling, she had these ancient, familiar promises and affirmations to hold onto. At the end of Psalm 23, Sue remarked how that gave her such courage and confidence. We repeated the Psalm and I noticed tears sliding down the side of her face.  

I then prayed for Sue ending with the Lord’s Prayer – and yet again, I heard the cadence and tone of her voice matching the rise and fall of the words Jesus gave all of us to speak to His Father. A genuine look of joy and relief and peace spread over her face. She remembered these words and somewhere inside her came the ability to recall them boldly. I then asked whether she knew any songs or hymns. I started to sing Jesus Loves Me and Sue enthusiastically joined in. Following this I lead us in a verse of Amazing Grace. Songs which contain eternal truths, strong promises and deep assurance. Sue said, ‘I know Jesus in my heart’ as she pointed to her heart. I encouraged her that Jesus is her daily strength, that no matter whether she knows where she is, what is to come – Jesus is with her, He loves her and He comforts and guides her.  

As I got up to leave, Alf thanked me for bringing such comfort and courage to Sue. She lay in her bed with a contented smile and a settled look in her eyes. In this helpless situation, we had all been lifted up and encouraged by the Eternal Word.  

When memory fades and words fail, the Word of God indeed stands firm forever. 

*Names changed.

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