Pastor's Pastor

Pastor's Pastor: What my psychiatrist didn't tell me

Pastor's Pastor: What my psychiatrist didn't tell me

Soon after the death of my brother and four other colleagues in a tragic plane crash, I began seeing a psychiatrist to help me process the awesome loss and overwhelming pain.

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Soon after the death of my brother and four other colleagues in a tragic plane crash, I began seeing a psychiatrist to help me process the awesome loss and overwhelming pain.

Friends and colleagues, as well as countless acquaintances, offered sympathy and expressed condolences, but as the weeks continued, I knew that I needed qualified professional counseling. First I made an appointment every week. Now I see him monthly which seems about right for me as I approach the one-year anniversary.

I have never kept my visits a secret and several friends especially those who know my lifelong fear of flying have asked, "What does your psychiatrist tell you?" As I've responded to their queries and pondered my own experience, I have concluded that greater discoveries have come from things my psychiatrist has not told me than from the things he has said. For example:

My psychiatrist never told me, "you're crazy." In fact, one of the sanest things I have ever done was to recognize a challenge beyond my normal coping skills and to sense my urgent need for a listening/engaging voice beyond my own devotional life. While I remain a firm believer in the therapeutic value of prayer to heal and restore, I also recognize that some challenges may need in-depth conversation, probing reflection and feedback coupled with penetrating questioning and demanding account ability. For me, this very process has been the product. By regularly encountering a professional who prods my thinking and challenges my emotional responses, I am experiencing the therapeutic product for which I sought professional care.

By the way, if it brings any consolation to those who wonder, he has never told me that I am "not crazy." So since I don't possess certification either way, you are welcome to your own opinion.

My psychiatrist never told me, "this is not real." At no point in this process has the tragic event which broke into our family been minimized. Our loss was sudden, devastating, public, and drastic for a much wider circle of individuals than our initial ability to grasp.

In the midst of our trauma, strangers were kind beyond measure and well intentioned "friends of Job" were cruel beyond comprehension as they, too, reacted to circumstances which never could have been foreseen, much less controlled, and only can be endured. Selfish graspings collided with selfless acts of gracious mercy to make harsh reality simultaneously harder to bear and easier to survive.

My psychiatrist has never suggested that my grief, which has ranged the full gamut of typical emotions, was not normal, or to be expected, or to be experienced. Beyond an occasional-use sleeping aid, he has not offered, nor have I felt I needed, medication. However, should my feelings of loss expand into insurmountable emotional hopelessness, it would be appropriate and necessary to consider a prescription for clinical depression.

My psychiatrist never told me "everything will be OK." Not once has he suggested that everything I am experiencing will turn out all right. He has never denied, nor encouraged me to deny, the long-term consequences for Dave's widowed spouse, his orphaned daughter, our aged and shattered parent, or the grieving team in his conference. Awesome consequences whether emotional, financial, organizational, or familial will continue into the unforeseeable distance. There is no morning in which I will ever awaken suddenly to discover "it is all over." I cannot tell you what will trigger the next pain wave nor can I predict when I will ever have one full day in which I don't reach for the phone to share some funny incident with my brother who can never answer my ring. Reality is harsh and permanent.

Finally, my psychiatrist never told me, "something better is coming." With some admitted amazement on his part, my psychiatrist has probed my faith and absolute confidence that I will see Dave again. He questions why I don't pray for my brother's soul which I know is at rest, and why I don't worry about his eventual salvation which I know is secure. I cannot imagine how anyone without such assurance could withstand grief's onslaught.

But, to borrow the words of a collegue who recently wrote, "Dave and I spent so much time sharing with each other about work, our marriages, emotions, college football, the foibles (as you describe them), our demons and our delights... that it has left me somewhat disoriented for all that to have abruptly ended without my permission. Kinda like calling a play at the scrimmage line, drop ping back to pass, then realizing all your receivers have disappeared. I just keep telling myself, 'Man, you were born into a world at war and bad things happen in war. Soldiers get wounded, maimed, killed. When the war's over, the regiment will be reunited.'"

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!


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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

December 2005

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