A Chaplain’s Prayer

The admin assistant for the Spiritual Care team strode briskly into the shared chaplains’ office.  “The ED (Emergency Department) just called.  A man in his 70s died in the ambulance on the way here.  Family has been notified, and it sounds like a bunch are heading this way.  The ED hopes you can get down there by the time they arrive.  That’s all we know.  Oh … and he is a Sikh.”

I began my second internship at the peak of COVID’s Delta surge, and all of the other chaplains were out on the floor.  With trepidation, I grabbed my notebook and headed down the corridor.  As I entered the waiting room I saw a large group huddled in the middle (I later counted eight).  The nurse in their midst looked at me with relief and escorted us back to a large ED room.

The deceased man, Aman, was lying in repose on a gurney.  A few women rushed to his side, weeping; the others stood at a slight distance, looking on.  I, too, stood at a distance, uncertain how to offer support. A man approached me, thanked me for being present, and proceeded to explain the relationship of each person in the room with Aman.  With that, I became one of the family, and soon others welcomed a bit of conversation.

I learned that Aman was a larger-than-life figure in his family and in his first-generation immigrant community, a classic patriarch.  He’d had health challenges for years, but lived each day with such vigor that no one saw his death coming.  I learned another son was on his way to the hospital, but it would be at least an hour before he arrived.  Someone asked, “How long can we stay in here?” and I realized I had no idea.

I stepped out of the room to check at the main desk.  I noticed that the aisles were packed with people on gurneys, all waiting for a room, and I knew I had my answer.  The charge nurse was sympathetic to the situation, and together we concocted a plan to move Aman upstairs to a private chapel where family could remain without time pressure.  “You still have a few minutes before we’ll be ready to move him.”

Back inside, I observed as many ways of responding to the death of a loved one as there were people in the room.  Aman’s daughter, overwhelmed with grief, pleaded to Aman to wake up and refused her aunts’ entreaties to gather herself.  Aman’s son, now thrust into the role of patriarch, sat numbly to the side, then was escorted out of the room by an uncle to find a funeral home that could accommodate the family’s religious practices.  A brother-in-law waxed philosophically that “this passage is a journey we all must take.”  A sister shared, “He was a true salesman—you would come in to buy socks and leave with a suit.”  As she laughed aloud at this memory, her sister scowled and said, “How can you laugh at a time like this?”  In other words, a family like any other …

There is no preparing for the moment when something unexpected or long feared suddenly, irreversibly, comes true.  There is no way to anticipate how we will respond, nor is there a “right” way to respond.  When tragedy strikes, we find ourselves without a script.  What we need in that moment is the freedom to feel what we feel, and to express those feelings in whatever form they take.  It helps to have an active listener who can offer affirmation, not judgment.  Those who are similarly devastated by the tragedy rarely have the capacity to listen in this way; they are dealing with their own emotions.  This is a situation where a chaplain can be especially helpful.

This particular chaplain, however, was confronting his own long-held fear.  I had just started back into chaplaincy after a one-year hiatus; this was a scenario I had always dreaded might arise, and I had no colleagues to look to for support.  Actually, I realized, I had one.  As I started down the hall toward the ED, I took a deep breath, and a prayer rose from within.  “Dear God, please help me to be who you need me to be in this moment.”

I have come to call this my Chaplain’s Prayer, and I now recite it regularly when I sense that a situation will be challenging.  It helps me remember that the guidance of the Spirit is always available if I can stop overthinking the situation—treating it like a problem I have to solve—and instead create a place of peace in my center from where I can discern what is needed and offer it.  This prayer was a wonderful gift to me that day.

As the family gathered around Aman’s body, I wondered briefly if I should say something, though nothing appropriate came to mind.  I took a breath and received the leading, “This isn’t about you!  Stand back and let them find their own ways to experience this.”  I recalled one of the mantras from my training:  “Trust the one suffering to know what they need.”  And so I did. 

One family member sought me out to reflect on his own mortality.  One found comfort in sharing stories of the deceased.  One shared guilt that she hadn’t gone to Aman’s apartment that morning when he didn’t answer her call, that if she had he might still be alive.  One wanted practical guidance on choosing a funeral home.  Aman’s son, when he returned, just wanted to be held and hugged as he sobbed, finding no such offers among his own family.

As I now understand my Chaplain’s Prayer, what God needed from me in that moment was simply to be available and attentive to each family member, and to offer what they needed as best as I could.  It doesn’t seem like much, yet that day it was more than enough.

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