Living in the places in between

Accompanying people during death, dying, loss and grief is central to the work and life of Mary Ringstad, Manager of Calvary Mater Newcastle’s Pastoral Care Department. Many people would find this confronting, but Mary learned many years ago, ‘If someone can be with the dying, they need to be with them, because very few people can do it.’

Living in the places in between

When Mary's name comes up in conversation, it's usually followed by someone relating an instance of her support during an experience of loss or grief. "She was amazing," they'll say. "I don't know how I would have survived without her." Perhaps what I and many others admire about Mary is her gentleness and skill in accompanying people during their distress; her ability and willingness to create opportunities to talk about difficult and often taboo topics; her fun-loving personality and humour; the calm inner peace she exudes.


Mary's life has been a series of choices and experiences: some carefully discerned, some occurring when "life's pragmatism reveals something else to us. When somebody asks me where I hope to be in five years, I usually laugh," she admits. "I'm not a goal setter or a planner. I live more organically, I think."


Mary's ability to "live organically" means that she has been open to following some lesser known and understood paths and embracing some of the many opportunities that have come to her in the "in between places".


She spent two years living in community with the Ursuline Order of Religious Sisters and contemplated joining them. "It was an amazing time for me, of growth and deep spiritual nurturing. My Novice Director said to me, 'This is about you finding your truth.' I consider this to be one of the most formative times of my life; also coming to the freedom to leave and to know that to have stayed would have been to insulate myself from life. The real challenge for me was to step back into life.


"Not long after leaving the Ursulines I was at Mass and there was an older priest preaching. I was feeling pretty vulnerable and he said, 'If God really wants you, God will get you.' I remember feeling overwhelmed with emotion and having to leave the church, because the message I heard from him was that God didn't want me. I knew that wasn't the truth, that my leaving the Ursulines was a discerned decision that was very much my truth. I knew I was very much loved by the Ursulines in that decision."


Soon after this, Mary began a degree in theology. "I had a deep love for my faith and an enquiring mind. The degree was very enriching, informing so many of my future choices and directions."


Mary says she had a "pivotal experience" while visiting a friend in Queensland. "My friend had to go off to work and her mother was staying with her as it was not long since my friend's father had died. My friend left her Mum and me on the porch, bidding farewell. Her mother started talking about the death of her husband. When my friend came back about four hours later, we were still there. I remember my friend's mother saying, 'If someone can be with the dying, they need to be with them, because very few people can do it.' Later, when I found myself in Pastoral Care that conversation loomed back and I thought, 'Yes Mary, you can be there, so it's important for you to be there'."


An important chapter in Mary's life began when, almost at the end of her theology degree, she enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education with what she laughingly describes as the "impure motivation" of graduating sooner.


Teaching had always been Mary's first love. However, having completed her study, lived and worked with homeless women and gained pastoral experience in two Melbourne hospitals, "I found myself looking out the window as much as the kids were. It was time to let that go and see what emerged for me." She resigned from teaching to work in pastoral care.


Somewhat ironically, a life-changing experience occurred on the border of two Australian states and between two chapters in Mary's life. After some years in Melbourne, Mary felt an urge to "put on a backpack and travel. Perhaps if I'd been braver I might have travelled around." Instead, however, Mary went to Chicago to begin her Masters in Spirituality. She had also desired a partner and marriage but, "as this is something you can't control, I decided to head off to Chicago."


Before leaving, Mary decided to visit friends on the south coast of NSW. "When I got to the border of Victoria and NSW, I stopped the car. I was really upset and felt I couldn't cross the border. What was I doing leaving Melbourne, which I had come to love so much, and stepping out into the unknown? Was I doing the right thing going to Chicago?"


Eventually Mary got back in the car, crossed the border and arrived at her friends' place. That night Mary and her friends were joined by Jack Downey, a school friend of Mary's host. "We discovered we had lived around the corner from each other in Fitzroy and knew some of the same people."


In 1995 Mary went to Chicago but she and Jack stayed in touch through letters and tapes. "It was a lovely gentle way to get to know each other."


Mary and Jack married in May 1997. "The whole thing has been a great gift. Jack snuck up behind me. I couldn't have planned it better myself."


On a deeper level, perhaps what draws people to Mary is her comfort with the mysteries of life and death and her living out of the "incomprehensibility of God", a phrase by a feminist theologian she was introduced to during her studies. "I need to hold this as absolutely central, the foundation of my work every day."


Through her sense of being able to 'hold' this and other paradoxes, Mary reminds us there is more to life.


"One of the critical learnings in pastoral care is not being afraid of your own vulnerability. If you're self aware you can carry your own vulnerability into your encounters."  Mary emphasises the importance of ensuring you are well supported and able to recognise your own needs and limitations. "If you're able to hold your own vulnerability and honour it, and not be afraid of listening to others from that place, it's probably the most powerful gift you've got: vulnerability meeting vulnerability. That's where our compassion and our ability to empathise come from."


Mary has worked in most areas of the Mater: Surgery, Emergency, Intensive Care and Coronary Care. She is currently based in Palliative Care, supporting patients and their families who are in the Hospice or who live within a 20 kilometre range.


"My job involves being attentive to the emotional needs and spiritual care of people in the Hospice, or in Palliative Care, who are dying. When you're talking with people who are unwell or their family members, acknowledging what's happening for them emotionally is a very empathic thing to do. It's critical in building rapport, establishing a relationship with someone. It invites them to explore things.

"It's also a way of enabling the person to become quite present to what they're saying, and present to that moment, right here, right now. That's when the spiritual domain will start to emerge.


"If we're using a spiritual frame of reference when we're listening to someone," Mary explains, "we're picking up the significance of this experience and the impact it's having in their life and the way it may be disrupting their meaning system, and also what resources are there: what tremendous resilience or courage or strength might be there that you can help them acknowledge and use.


"In palliative care I'm very aware of my role in preparing people for their dying; in living the paradox 'am I living or am I dying?' And what does life mean when you're dying?


"I'm also very aware of solitude," Mary continues, "the reality of it, the movement into it. The dying move into a different place, an interior place, where day to day concerns and realities do not occupy their mental space, their heart space, their spiritual space. They are somewhere else."


Again, perhaps paradoxically, Mary thinks "hope is one of the gifts of my work and how I live my life. It's our Christian belief that life will never die. People's capacity to live their dying is so extraordinary, as is their capacity to share it. Considering death frightens most of us, people do it with such grace and courage. The human spirit is amazing."

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