A Chaplain’s Perspective Essay IX: R&R

R&R (Rest and Reflection)

I have been off work for five days and it is the first week of December 2020. This reflection is different. Most of the time a reflection seems to pour out, complete, only needing a grammar check. This time it has taken five days to get to a place of being able to write and the process of forming thoughts is taking effort.

I have heard of the fog of war and wonder if it relates here. So much has happened in the past month that it is hard to process. So maybe that is the point of this reflection; sorting through all that has happened and finding solid ground.

The week of Thanksgiving was unlike anything I have ever experienced during the pandemic or my twelve-plus years as a chaplain. The number of COVID+ patients in the hospital grew daily and was quickly approaching ninety patients. One hallway that has served COVID+ patients since the beginning had ten deaths in five days. I have personally been with thirty-seven families who have had a loved one die from COVID-19.

In the hospital I work in, the chaplain is called to every patient death. We are to be a compassionate presence who can keep our head in times of intense grief and emotion. We are there to sit with families in the moment and assist with what happens next. These times can be incredibly healing in various ways. There are times families begin telling stories of their loved one, and there are times information and emotional support is given when families are task oriented and want to address the funeral home, care of their loved one and the process that occurs next with Death Certificates etc.. At other times, the chaplain assists by creating space for families at the bedside to have time and a quiet physical space to call other family who many times gather at various times to view their loved one and support each other. Some times families simply chose to sit in silence, there are times families request prayer.

I have been called to be a part of these moments hundreds of times over the years I have worked as a chaplain. It amazes me that I have never had a family request that the chaplain leave. Simply stating in truth my function, “I am Chaplain John and I am here to give some support and help with what happen next,” seems to meet a universal human need.

COVID-19 deaths are different. Isolation is the norm and due to this necessity families have not been able to journey alongside a loved one’s final earthly journey at the bedside. It is normal for a COVID+ patient to die alone. This is the opposite of what usually happened pre-COVID. Usually a chaplain served to facilitate connections between the patient and their loved one. Many times, this meant sitting with a patient in silence or holding a hand.

Since mid-summer 2020, I have been permitted to enter COVID+ rooms. There is enough Personal Protective Equipment available, and I must follow strict guidelines. I continue to serve the entire hospital and not spreading COVID throughout the hospital must be the primary concern. I can enter rooms for sacramental purposes such as; baptism, communion, praying over a person and administering a Protestant Anointing of the Sick based on James 5:14-15, “Are any among you sick? They should call the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” In this way, I have entered around a dozen COVID+ rooms. I am amazed at the nurses, personal care assistants, house cleaners and doctors who enter a dozen COVID+ rooms daily.

This said, I am sure the reader is aware that entering a dozen rooms is less than thirty-seven rooms. Therefore, I too, like most families are faced with processing differently and in ways that can present new very challenging hurts that require healing.

We do not know the long-term effect on families who have had to deal with the isolation of their loved and deceased family member. We can expect it may be a different journey and may require unique mental and spiritual care healers to meet the need.

As a chaplain, isolation has forced me to face my own limitations and inadequacies. I think this is the challenge for many if not all health care workers who treat COVID+ patients. As hard as I try, the COVID death usually occurs in ways completely opposite to my training and experience. We try our best through phone calls and ZOOM, yet we acknowledge that our best is less than our previous norm.

For healthcare workers, the reality is most patients get better and many continue to die. For those who have served this community since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of deaths only rises. The number of COVID+ patients has not decreased but rather has risen. For nearly four months the number of COVID+ patients in the hospital hovered between twenty-five to forty; then it began to decrease and at one point we only had nine COVID+ patients in the hospital. Last week there were nearly ninety! Further, there is no one who knows if we have reached the peak and when the numbers might begin to decrease. My personal suspicion is that when I return to the hospital next Monday the numbers may have risen.

With all that has been written the reader might be asking, “How could I take a time of rest and reflection at this time?” Some might even believe it to be irresponsible on my part

To these valid observations I offer my answer. I am a chaplain, therefore, one of my functions is to support staff and model healthy behavior. The moment we think we are indispensable we risk traveling a very dangerous road. Seeking truth and grace, we acknowledge that we serve an important role. An important role is not indispensable. As a Christian chaplain I recognize that God is with us.

Knowing that co-workers serve an important role it is imperative I lead by example and model healthy living. Further, I will continue to encourage others to take time for rest and reflection.

In truth, no one knows when the pandemic will end. In truth there are fewer healthcare workers serving a larger group of COVID+ patients. In truth many wonderful healthcare workers have left for a variety of valid personal reasons meaning that many of those treating COVID+ patients are less experienced and younger. In truth it is possible that those experienced healthcare workers who, like me, have been at it since March might be feeling a little worn.

In all these situations it is important to model healthy living. In truth the next few months are going to be rough. In truth whenever we reach that time of relief and new life (whenever that might be, and we look expectantly for a vaccine), it will be important to have as many healthcare workers, colleagues, friends and family prepared for what happens next.

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a new way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

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