Seeing children suffer is a great challenge to our faith. Every day, children are diagnosed with severe chronic or terminal illnesses. Every day children die. There is a universally felt unfairness around the sickness of a child. It’s one of the clearest signs of the brokenness of our world.
As a pediatric chaplain, Rev. Karen Norris witnesses the challenges of suffering children every day. Karen works at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, AB, a 200 bed hospital with three intensive care units, and provides support to children and families there.
“I’m the person who gets to support families and children in their spirituality directly,” says Karen. “I feel really blessed that I’m someone they can trust to share their doubts, their concerns, and their joys within their faith.”
Karen navigates a challenging world that most of us find mysterious and scary. Every day she interacts with children and families in crisis. Their lives are in disarray, their futures uncertain. They are figuring out a challenging new hospital environment as they live in fear of what the next day will bring. All of them pray for a miracle, and many don’t get the specific miracle they ask for. When she enters these situations, Karen must be a beacon for advocacy, emotional support, and hope.
“I ensure that their beliefs and values have a place at the table with whatever conversations are going on,” she says. “It’s not like those things we see on TV where you have an hour to decide. If possible, families are given days and weeks. Many tests can be done. Families are concerned that the team may have made a mistake and their child may recover. It’s so much dialogue, and building communication and trust.”
When interacting with families, Karen often thinks of a story from Mark 9 in which a man brings his son to Jesus. The boy is believed to be possessed, prone to seizures, and his father is desperate for a miracle. He asks Jesus to heal his son, if he can. Hearing this, Jesus questions the man’s belief. The father responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
For so many families with sick children, the challenge of doubt is very real. It is hard to believe in a loving healing God when their children suffer. They feel a mixture of anger, guilt, bitterness, and fear, as they try to come to terms with the way their child’s life is going. In these moments, chaplains like Karen serve as spiritual guides, letting people grieve, listening to their sorrows, and opening them to the Spirit.
“I help the family to look for signs of the best direction to go,” says Karen. “I encourage them to look for both medical and spiritual signs. I encourage families to look where they’re having a sense of peace. None of that happens overnight. It’s a long process.
“I see miracles as signs of God’s intervention and signs that God is listening to and answering our prayer. Even coming to a place of peace where you know your child is going to die and you can let your child go is, in a way, a miraculous intervention. What parent can do that on their own? It might not be the answer they wanted, but when a family recognizes that God is calling their child home, there’s something of God’s intervention and grace in those situations.”