CMDA's The Point

The Call

August 17, 2022

by Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

As a young man, I struggled some, wondering what my true calling in life was. At age 18, after months of prayer, I felt the Lord was calling me to life as a physician. Later, in medical school, the multiple options for work within medicine fascinated and, at times, bewildered me. They say the average undergrad student changes their major five or six times. I don’t know what the number is for medical students, but I know I seriously considered multiple options before I finally settled on neurology as a career choice, and later God also led me into working in palliative medicine, healthcare leadership and medical ethics.

Interestingly, as I aged, the specific endeavors still mattered, but it became more and more obvious to me that my real call is to Christ Himself and to the people He places in my life. Serving Him first is paramount, and the specifics are of lesser importance.

My wife Tammy wrote a book, Why Not Me?, on God’s faithfulness during the illness and eventual death of her previous husband, Larry, and she is trained as a bereavement volunteer. She has a special passion for reaching out to others during their most difficult times. Recently she has been preparing a series of presentations on God’s work in her life, focusing on sympathy, empathy and compassion, and she has shared many of her thoughts with me.

Sympathy is nice, and it can be helpful. Sympathy cards tell the grieving person that you are thinking of them and are sorry they are going through hard times. It is a reach of kindness, and it is not without merit. If you take the time to send a card, however, take the time to write something personal. A generic sympathy card doesn’t comfort much, and your lack of personal words may be seen as a lack of care on your part.

Empathy is distinctly different, as it is truly entering into the other’s pain, understanding this in a way that mere sympathy does not. After the death of Barb, my wife of 34 years, my understanding of the pain my patients were experiencing in their physical or emotional problems changed. A number of patients, knowing of Barb’s death, would comment that they knew I understood their loss better than most, having gone through her death myself. I listened more and spoke less.

Compassion goes a step further. Jesus’ ministry was characterized by ongoing compassion, with a prostitute, a leper, a widow, a mother, a blind man, children, a Samaritan woman, a thief and many sick and disabled people. It not only puts one in the shoes of the suffering person, but it actively reaches out to help. Sometimes the best help is just being present. Job’s friends did an excellent job of doing this for their first week visiting him. It was only when they felt they had to say something that they began stumbling, and they were subsequently reprimanded by God for their lack of grace, faith and comprehension.

In the months immediately before Barb’s death, a doctor with whom I work, and his wife, reached out to us with compassion. I did not know them well, but Jo called and brought over a meal in an aluminum, disposable/recyclable container. She said that she did not want me to worry about having to arrange a time to return the container. She stayed and talked with me for about five minutes—long enough to acknowledge our pain, but not so long as to be awkward or taxing.

A week later, her husband Scott, whom I respected but did not know very well, called me out of the blue, just to tell me that he was thinking about us and realized how painful things must be. He could have avoided the conversation, as did most of my colleagues, or he could have signed a simple sympathy card, but he took the time to call, and that meant a lot to Barb and to me.

In Sabbath School, recently, Mike “B” answered the question, “What is the appropriate way to talk to someone who is in deep pain and often in deep doubt?” I listened carefully, as I had been “comforted” appropriately and inappropriately during our time of loss, and I had been thinking about this a lot with Tammy.

  1. He said that he would not begin to approach this person until he prayed for wisdom and direction. This step is unfortunately often omitted by many as they begin their attempts to reach out to others.
  2. He said that he would sit and listen for as long as the other person needed. The healing power of presence and a listening ear are greatly underrated and are often superior to speech.
  3. I thought, as he talked, that the temptation to say, “I know what you’re going through,” can be strong at times, especially if we have lived through something similar, but this phrase should be avoided. Each person’s bitterness is their own (Proverbs 14:10).
  4. After, and only after, a bridge of compassion has been established, with permission from the mourner, a very gentle perspective change may at times be introduced. “Would you mind if I shared a thought that came to me while I was listening to you?” It is difficult to do this with appropriate tone and care. It may be best postponed during an initial conversation, and only introduced over time.
  5. Do not attempt to explain the pain of the situation in spiritual terms. You are not God and should not offer advice on His behalf. “I guess Jesus needed another soprano for His choir,” or “God knows best, and I’m sure He has His reasons,” or worse yet, “I’m sure He’ll send someone else into your life to fill the void,” and similar comments are painful and misplaced, and they can be quite harmful.
  6. Finally, if at all possible, your compassion should continue over time. Phone calls, visits, notes, invitations to meet for a snack or coffee—shared over the ensuing weeks and months is best. This is especially important when anniversaries or “firsts” arrive: first Christmas, first dinner out alone, first time back at church or first day back at work. After Tammy’s husband Larry died, a dear friend, Ellen, called her on a regular basis, stopped by to see her and prayed with her. Grief takes time to heal, and in some ways it will never heal completely. Loss of a spouse or child has been likened to getting an amputation. Life goes on and we learn to enjoy it again, but it is never the same. Don’t rush them. They are not on your timetable.

God has called you to be His, first and foremost, and showing compassion to our neighbors is the best way to show His love to others: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matthew 22:37b-40, ESV).


About Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics)

Robert E. Cranston, MD, MA (Ethics), MSHA, FAAN, CPE, is a board certified neurologist, with additional training and experience in palliative medicine, executive coaching and medical leadership. He recently retired after 30 years serving at Carle Health (formerly Carle Foundation Hospital) in Urbana, Illinois, as an attending neurologist, and (Past Chair—14 years) of the Carle Ethics Committee. He and his wife Tammy are grateful for their five grown children, their daughters- and sons-in-law and their 12 grandchildren.

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