Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number eight. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.
I had four trauma alerts in a row. They happened in the same hour; the first two happened within five minutes of each other.
As strange as this sounds, one of the things I like about traumas is the teamwork. Of course, the situation is awful: it’s frantic, fast, sweaty, often bloody and crowded, and there’s a human being hanging in limbo. I don’t want to lose sight of that. But given where we are, I would trust this trauma team if I was the guy on that bed. The medical staff in the room knows their part, like the pins in a lock that fit the contours of a key, and they weave in and out and create this quilt of knowledge around the patient, with hand-in-hand humility, each bringing their expertise to the table. I have nowhere near the proficiency of a doctor or nurse, but I’m still a tiny part of that room somehow. It feels like I belong, like purpose is stirring there.
Though the individual visits are wonderful, like slow dancing, and the conversations can be life-changing — the trauma bay is this electrified organism trying to bring back the dead, a highly choreographed ballet. I think people have to be a little crazy to enter the medical field and to work the emergency department. It’s the one place where you have to be completely, fully engaged with undivided allegiance to the moment. It’s probably why I like it: the work of healing requires me to be fully alive.
Our didactic was about dealing with compassion fatigue and secondhand grief. A chaplain’s regular day is full of exposure to pain and death with almost zero closure, and while it takes an obvious toll: most people don’t realize that until it’s too late. Some of the signs are snapping at others in a rage, random bouts of crying, and feeling like you’re bothering people if you talk about it.
I’m understanding more and more that simply helping people is extremely draining and unromantic, and not many of us count the cost of pouring out for others. There’s no Hollywood montage full of high fives and confetti. It’s usually dirty unappreciated work, sleeves rolled up, waist high with people who are rightfully scared, angry, lonely, and sometimes slipping. There might be some people who have iron skin for this sort of thing, but I’m not one of them.
We did this exercise to let go of the residual grief. We commemorated a memorable patient by telling their story to our fellow chaplains, and then placed a colored stone in a glass jar to release them. It sounds simple, even cheesy, but this was a lot more visceral than I thought it would be. I found it almost impossible to let go of the stones.
Every clink in the glass plucked a nerve inside. A part of me didn’t want to let them go. It didn’t feel fair, and I kept asking God to forgive me for the whole thing. I wanted to keep the memories of these patients bottled in my own glass, as if I owed them, as if the universe owed them better, as if their stories mattered too much, as if I was somehow dishonoring their lives. I wanted to keep their ashes in glass. But — I knew such a responsibility was too big for me. It’s too much for any one person to hold. I looked around and saw some of the same hesitation, but we knew it was better this way. The stones kept clinking around the room, and I unfurled my fists. The team, each pin in motion.
After the four trauma alerts, when I went home for the day, I involuntarily began weeping. I wasn’t sad; I wasn’t cringing; I was even singing to music, and my eyes just filled. It was just pent up grief, leaking out of me. Then I thought of the stones and the jars, and I thought of each name and their stories, and I heard the clink, each life given over to God and to glory, clink, a prayer for each life, clink, and slowly the tears stopped, clink, and I let closure settle in to bind up the spaces I had poured out.
I had to be content that I did my part, that I was fully committed and wholly alive to that moment and those lives, and the sun must set to wake again, to be part of the dance once more.
I had to trust that I honored them, treasures in glass jars in the memory of God and glory.