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Boxing It Up

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.