What Matters When Nothing Else Does.

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number two. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I watched someone die.

The trauma team did everything they could for him. That’s what the doctors told his wife, too. Her husband had stepped outside and suddenly fell over, his heart a fist in his chest. He was, as they say, in good health. The paramedics burst into the trauma bay with him on a stretcher, already in action, doing chest compressions and administering epinephrine. The nurses took turns. I was amazed at their clockwork efficiency. It wasn’t like the TV shows where everyone is frantic and yelling heavy-handed stuff at each other. No one yelled, We’re losing him. It was calm, the methodical pace of carving a pear with a pocketknife.  The team had a kind of choreographed trust that you only find in good acapella groups, or a school of fish. But the man was probably dead before they got him through the door. They had to try.

The doctors were very clear with the news. He died. The wife and her children were cut to pieces. There was a lot of screaming and hugging and anger in that suffocating space. I felt intrusive. There were three doctors and three chaplains standing around, and it was too many of us. Or maybe that was okay; maybe some people need more company so they don’t go crazy. I would want that for my family. I tried not to stare; I looked at the floor when the family wept and I wanted to jump in the wall. Someone asked me to grab a box of tissues and I dashed out, hoping to be respectful, and useful. I could hear them crying from the end of the hallway.

I didn’t know there was so much paperwork when someone died. There are all kinds of packets and release forms and flyers for funeral homes. It was like this all day. Fill in the blank, confirm this name, find out this address, sign on the last line. It’s the great equalizer: everyone ends up a scribble on one of these pieces of paper, jammed in a folder with your entire life.

There was a baby in the NICU who was going to die. He had maybe a few days. I held his hand while a neurosurgeon sutured a bleeding head wound. They had to try, you know. The baby had a condition where his skin wasn’t healing, and every puncture of the needle would only rip more flesh. One of the chaplains left the room; I stayed. I thought I might feel sick after a while, but my stomach was a little stronger than me. More than that, I didn’t want to leave the child alone. He would never know I was there, and I felt completely useless, but the other chaplain said, “That doesn’t matter, whether they know or not. You’re there, is what matters.”

We kept getting trauma alerts. In between two different kids, one hit by a car and another with a stab wound, we visited two siblings whose father had just passed. It was a whirlwind of grief and beeping pagers and explosive emotion. I had no time to process what I was seeing until the drive home, when it all fell inward and it was like my guts were spilling through the seat. I prayed. I know that tragedy can move people in different directions, but for me — I was never more certain that God was real and faith was a necessity. I prayed for every name I had seen on a form, for real stories, for these people that mattered.

Our didactic was on the appropriate way to counsel grief. Many of us fall back on a shallow religious rhetoric to comfort people, a sort of over-spiritualizing shorthand that barely touches on a person’s real hurt. We use phrases like, “It’s all God’s plan,” or, “God needed another angel,” or, “This can be for your good,” or, “I know how you feel.” But even when they’re true, it’s absolutely insensitive to drop such anvils during grief. And most of these shambling little props never work. We don’t know how indoctrinated we’ve become in these terribly toxic platitudes, and it’s not entirely our fault. The language is so common and easy and passed down even in the best of churches. But it’s our responsibility to meet people where they are, to think sensibly and thoughtfully about our choice of words and the theology we offer: not to say nothing, but knowing that silence can be good, and grieving alongside can be enough.

I’m learning the value of being there, is what matters.

— J.S.

2 thoughts on “What Matters When Nothing Else Does.

  1. Thank you. As someone in the medical field, it is very easy to become numb to how much emotion there is in the hospital. To remember to be there and pray is a great reminder of god’s love for the grieving.


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