90 minutes. The time I sat with a family in the emergency room. Their loved one, alive just a few hours ago, has died. Their lives and hearts are broken into a million pieces, scattered on the sanitized hospital floor.
The weight of their grief and suffering is pressing my heart to the floor. Words of assurance seem shallow as they exit my mouth. I don't know what to say, and leaving is not an option. So I sit without saying anything, holding space for them, praying silently. The nurse, doctor and medical examiner come and go, working through the tasks that must be completed for a patient who has died.
This is the vocation God has chosen for me. Compassionately and willingly I have said “yes” to God to do the critical work of a hospital chaplain. I stay near until the family bids me to go. Once departing, I hope to steal a few minutes in my office to pray and regroup.
Sadly I can not, as my cell phone beeps the next emergency. A left turn directs me to the stairs, which I take two at a time to get to the patient’s room whose life hangs in the balance.
While I could have used a bit of time to decompress, I have learned it to be a luxury. Knowing I cannot take the death and grief of the ER patient into the next room, I have learned a quick way to refresh and move on.
Boxing it up does the trick. In my mind and heart, I placed the deceased person and their family in a “box.” I then tuck the “box” safely on a bookshelf in my office. Knowing I can take it out later to examine it, pray over it, and grieve for a moment at the loss of a life, which helps me to move forward.
This is the way I made it through the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Watching families, nurses, nursing techs, doctors and more hang their heads in sorrow, I grieved alongside them. Then, a trip to my office for prayer, and then placing this heartache in a “box.”
It was necessary. You see, not everyone in the hospital was battling COVID-19. Not all patients were facing the probability of death. Mothers birthed healthy babies. Women and men were healing from surgery and treatments. Staff were struggling with personal issues.
In order to be ready for whatever came my way, it meant I needed a lot of “boxes'' to place encounters with patients and staff. And, the necessity of leaving the “boxes” at the hospital was important because I didn’t want to bring it home with me, intermixing it with my own challenges.
Yet sometimes I did. I couldn’t help it. Chaplain visits often touched a place deep inside me, and the suffering of others is difficult to set aside. When this happens, the grief and suffering of others merges with my own suffering and grief.
In my home there are another set of “boxes.” My personal hardships and encounters with my own grief, and with family and friends, need their place, as well. It can be daunting to manage it all, as I seem to get weighed down just as I do with the people in the hospital.
My own suffering has a life of its own. It is always with me, though nearly five years since my husband’s death, suffering no longer has a starring role in my life. Still, the perpetual cloak of suffering is draped over my shoulders.
There are times when suffering is a weighted blanket, threatening to suffocate me… stealing the very breath from my lungs. Other times suffering is a crocheted prayer shawl taking away the chill of the winter evening as I read in an overstuffed chair. Then there are the times when suffering is a mere handkerchief, tucked in my pocket, always at the ready.
Suffering prays with me and plays with me. There are times I find that suffering slips from my shoulders and allows me to be free of it as I engage with family and friends. Attend to patients in the hospital.
Most days my suffering is stored in a wooden box on the shelf. It is labeled and always accessible for me to take it out and sit with it a while. And there will be times when it will sneak out of the box on its own, and bear down once again on my shoulders. But that’s okay. I have made peace with suffering.
Suffering’s presence is forever a part of me. I can go days without its reminder, only to look in the mirror and see suffering in my own eyes. At those times, I cozy up on the couch and write in my journal, regaling the pages with the events that lead to suffering resurfacing once again.
I dare not cast suffering aside. Mine or those whom I encounter as a chaplain. To pretend it doesn’t exist is to deny my very existence, for it is as much a part of me as my hazel eyes, size nine feet, and naturally curly hair. And, it is as much a part of chaplaincy, as well.
“Boxing” up my suffering is essential. Ignoring the “boxes” is not an option. They will always be there for me to spend time with the contents, for what is housed inside shapes me. The contents help me to grow in my role as chaplain, and as a person of empathy and compassion.
FOR FURTHER THOUGHT
“Boxing” up the challenges in our lives and forgetting them is not the point of this. On the contrary, to “box” up the difficulties is to allow us to examine the contents when we are better equipped to do so.
Life throws us some pretty big challenges. God equips us to be able to handle them. We do not go through life alone. On the contrary, God journeys through the joys and sorrows and hardships of life with us. Check out these scriptures as a reminder of the Lord’s presence with us always:
Jesus said to his disciples, and to all of us, “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20)
“I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
Try "boxing" up the hard things in your life. Only for a little while, though. Take them out and invite God to examine them with you. It can do a world of good.
Lord of Love and Life, You are ever near to me, and I thank You. When I face challenges, please help me to place them in a “box” only for a little while…. Until I can examine and pray over them with Your guidance. With You, anything is possible. With You, hardships can be overcome. What a gift. Thank You! Amen.
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