Time, Tenderness, and Terror: Reflections from a Hospital Chaplain

CW: Death, dying, grief, loss, infant loss

“Callouses form easily,” I was recently told in a meeting, “endurance takes time.” And I add to these words perhaps endurance’s movement into healing and growth takes both time and tenderness.

I’ve been learning that working at a Level One Trauma Hospital for the summer creates its own heap of secondary trauma and invitations into the agony of humanity and oneself.

At the beginning of the summer learning goals were discussed and my foremost goal was to not become numb to human suffering while also developing an endurance for care, empathy, and human accompaniment. I asked, “how can I build endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering?”

Shortly after developing these goals, I encountered a number of unexpected deaths and grieving families during on-call shifts. One, a brand new baby who was well before birth and simply never began breathing. The other, a father, husband, and grandfather on Father’s Day. More recently, I was asked to tend to the bedside of a “terminal wean,” where ventilatory support is withdrawn from the patient as they begin to travel through the threshold of life into death. Another time, a notification on my pager to come to the bedside for “end of life.” In this instance, as I stood in a room with a family whose dear one was dying, I put my hand on the dying–holding them in the gratitude of what they brought to this earth by their presence. I put my other hand on the back of the grieving, as they wailed in disbelief, pain, and anguish. I shared and prayed no magic words, offered no comforting thoughts, and was only present to the moment. The waves of grief dominated these lives and rooms, as they do under these circumstances, and together we allowed the waves to roll through the space like a tsunami while striving to keep each other safe. 

The inexplicability of death never ceases to haunt my imagination. The ways death offers no real response to the question of why stops us all in our tracks. Believing all of life is entwined, I realize how little I stop to ask why a tree dies in the middle of a burning forest or why I perpetually participate in the ocean’s walk towards death. Why isn’t the hope of new growth in the garden as astonishing as a brand new human life or the sight of a patient on the other side of a heart transplant? How can I celebrate and grieve in the fullness of life’s connectivity? And still somehow these moments of accompaniment in alongside the dying and their loved ones are simultaneously holy and horrifying.

If I’ve learned anything about grief and human accompaniment this summer it’s simply that there are absolutely no proper words or language to offer to the grieving. I’ve gone into the summer knowing that there are plenty of wrong things to say and quite simply nothing right to say. In this way, the presence of personhood and accompaniment is an offering beyond words. The statue of immovable presence and peace amid unfathomable loss is at best a sentiment. A presence which can affirm the anger, frustration, sadness, pain, worry, grief, loneliness, agony… A presence to witness human suffering and acknowledge the terror of all that is unknown and unknowable.

On the more difficult days I often ask myself, how does one mark the death and grief of total strangers with whom they’ve accompanied in some of the most impossible and insufferable moments of life? Are these moments tattooed on my soul like a mark of memory, are they (the dead and their families) now threaded together within the expanding quilt of my existence, or are they lost in the ether of full and busy days with little to no time for sacred pauses? Maybe instead, grief becomes a part of me ––of us, like a new limb, an added layer of emotion, or the daily piece of jewelry we put on before we begin our day.

Many of us can agree that not only is healthcare in America a broken system, but so too are its hospitals. The lighting, the noise, the anxiety, the loneliness, even its spiritual care programs which often offer little spiritual care for their own – this is a difficult place to heal and grieve. And when it comes to working in these spaces: detachment often means survival, disconnect allows for life beyond the walls of work, and disengagement is frequently a way to stay sane.

So as I reflect more deeply on my impossible goal of building “endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering” I instead ask “how can I offer time, tenderness, and presence amid the mystery and terror of death?” The tsunami of grief comes when it comes, stirring up unfathomable emotion and unknowable pain. I can only be present to yours, mine, ours, show up, and offer some small sense of solidarity in the midst of all that is unknowable.

And, so, all of the answers to my questions land here: There are no answers. There’s no way to perfectly witness or accompany human suffering. There is no ideal way to witness grief. It can only be honored, tenderly seen, lovingly acknowledged, and any forms of healing and growth are both a process and an art. An art tethered to uniqueness by the way that each human interaction is unique.

As I walk out of the hospital on the more difficult days, I pause for a moment of acknowledgment in the hospital chapel. I speak names in my heart and shake my head with the tension of emotions. I offer the unknowable to the unknown, the mysterious to the mystery, the hopelessness to the possibility of hope. 

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

James Baldwin, Nothing Personal

Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, student, and holds a MA in Counseling. She works as a Teaching Assistant at Christian Theological Seminary where she is studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees. She also serves as Student Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Since 2017, Cassidy has been the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society. Cassidy worked on the production team of the documentary feature film In Pursuit of Silence and her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years. Her podcast, Encountering Silence features interviews with contemplatives, modern-day mystics, and explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. Cassidy’s work centers around the tension and intersection of silence and social action and contemplation in a world of action.

2 thoughts on “Time, Tenderness, and Terror: Reflections from a Hospital Chaplain

  1. Beautifully thought out and written response to your experiences, Cassidy. I’ve learned a little about the role of a chaplain from a consumer’s perspective. You’re right, that there are no words and there are wrong words (we all know those tired expressions). What helped me is presence of another person, and knowing when not to be present. A simple prayer. Information about what happens now, organ donation? funeral home? what happened when he died? (I was not present), and in general the mechanics of this foreign situation. And if you knew the person, saying something personal about them then and every time you see me.

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