Content note: cancer, death, trauma, COVID, hospital
There is a period of about two weeks in my life that I do not want to repeat, despite the good things that came out of them.
It is the last week of May, first week of June 2015.
I started a summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the local trauma one hospital the same week I was finalizing my Letter of Call for my first full time ministry position.
Days started at 7AM at the hospital and orientation threw me in the deep end right away. Unlike some of my fellow chaplain interns, I did not have any practice offering pastoral care to strangers and walking into hospital rooms the first dozen times was more than intimidating.
On lunch breaks I was checking my email for updates from the search committee chair and after work and in the evening I was negotiating adjustments.
It was all emotional, vulnerable, and overwhelming.
Then I was scheduled as the first of the summer interns to have an overnight call. By myself. At the hospital where severe traumas from around our region come by helicopter and ambulance.
We had an on-call room to use and had to keep track of two ASCOM phones (internal cell phones) and three pagers. That first on-call shift I did not sleep because I was terrified of missing a page.
The next morning we had education and then, because I had been on call, I got to go home while the rest of the chaplains did rounds in the hospital.
Our education topic that morning? Grief. And it is one of my most vivid memories from that summer [others include: finding out a family member had a stroke after being with a family that was told their loved one on life support would not be waking up, two ER traumas I won't describe, and the intense grief of a mother who found out her son had died].
The last thing before I got to leave was a guided meditation exercise. We started with 25 blank squares that we laid out in a grid after writing down:
5 important skills/hobbies you have
5 favorite parts of nature
5 favorite physical items
5 favorite places
5 people you love
I was exhausted, sleep deprived, and had only a couple days prior signed the Letter of Call that meant I would be moving 900 miles away to a place where I knew no one.
One of our supervisors started describing a situation where you are diagnosed with cancer, going through treatment, dealing with side effects, surgery, and other setbacks.
After each new part of the story, we are told to take one of our squares and set it aside, to crumple it up, or to tear it up. Sometimes we had to pick two squares. Two things we no longer have access to as the illness or treatment limits our freedom, our health, our ability to do.
Given my personal history with loved ones with cancer, it didn't take long for the tears to start coming for me.
Then suddenly I only have five squares left. They are all in the bottom row, they are the people I love.
And I have to start choosing from them. With 3 left, the supervisor comes and takes choice away and picks one herself.
The pain is palpable as she describes our final loss and our death.
To bring us back to the present, to the reality of life, and to our physical selves, she repeats Psalm 27:13 several times - "I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living."
I went home and slept. Physically exhausted from a night on call. Emotionally exhausted from the reckoning I had to do with grief.
Because what I realized after that exercise was I was about to take the other 20 squares with me to Missouri and leave behind the five squares I had held on to until the end. I had to face the very real grief work that following my call was going to require me to do.
In the six years since that day, I have thought about that exercise often. Most often on nursing home visits when church members tell me about the things they used to do, the family members they haven't seen, the last time they went to their favorite place, the loss of independence, the important items they don't have anymore because they had always planned to go home after that hospital stay...
But also when I watch family members stop coming to church because someone has to care for their family member at home, when health concerns mean travel is impossible, or children are sent off to college. The empathy and understanding I have for those stories was the point of the exercise in the first place.
For the last year and a half it has felt more universal than ever, as we all have seen others a lot less often; gone without hugs or time away from others in our household (depending on the situation); missed out on special events - concerts, shows, conferences; and lost our built in communities.
We also have lost any sense of certainty, the ability to plan or look forward to things, a sense of safety. Many have lost loved ones. Many have lost their own health and strength due to long COVID. Many have made difficult choices between protecting their health, the health of loved ones, and their income. Parents of school age children have been faced with risk calculus that has no solution. The delicate balance between the needs of our mental health and our physical health - when it is all just health - is particularly brutal.
I don't remember all the things I wrote on my 25 squares six years ago. I know they would be different now and I have more things and people to choose from.
Most of my grid of 25 was in tact in January 2020. Even if people I love are far away, I still have them in my life. That same grid has some holes in it today. Things this season has taken from me. Not all of them are permanent losses, but some of them are. They may be replaced in time, that is also part of life and grief, but for now, the holes ache.
All of us have holes in our grid right now. And those losses make us angry, sad, scared, numb, impatient, and more.
This is what people mean when they say we have been living through an extended period of collective trauma. That we are carrying around a giant ball of grief that makes it self known in all sorts of ways. Add in injustice, racism, climate disasters, oppression, violence, economic inequality, underpaid and under-supported "essential workers," extreme division, and all the other crises in our world and it is a time for lament.
But we do not lament well. It is emotional, vulnerable, and overwhelming.
It is not something to check off a to do list or accomplish.
Lament benefits from some of the very things that seem in short supply right now - community, empathy, compassion, patience, companionship, honesty. But that is why it is also so very necessary.
In a perfect world I would have a solution instead of just a description of the problem, but I don't. So help me out, what is missing from your grid right now?
What has grief, what has lament for those missing squares looked like for you?
Maybe in sharing we can remind each other that we can see "the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living."