I recently quit my job at the hospital where I’ve been a trauma chaplain for the past 3.5 years.
It was a big decision that I didn’t make lightly and I’ll now be going out on my own, starting a private practice to help people find their way, hold onto themselves, and honor the process of transformation that life’s toughest moments often herald into our lives.
Yet this huge life change has had me reflecting on my time at the hospital where I really strove to practice a visionary model of spiritual care that is about so much more than just listening.
Don’t get me wrong — I believe listening it is inherently impactful. But in a field that lacks standardized and comprehensive training, it often ends up being the only tool in a chaplain’s toolkit and is used only as a means in and of itself instead of as a clinical intervention designed as a means towards greater and more specific healing.
It’s why I used to tell two things to chaplains while helping to on-board them:
1) I started volunteering at a nursing home when I was ten years old and would listen deeply, elicit stories and feelings, display kindness, and hold people’s hands so I can’t only be offering the same thing now that I am a board-certified clinical chaplain.
2) Our job is to contribute what wouldn’t be obvious to a stranger walking by off the street or to another professional on the team. For example, if a family member is crying and our entire assessment is that they are “grieving” and our only interventions offered are “ministry of presence” then we are not being value-added.
Chaplains are often seen, function, and imagined as caring and compassionate people yet the truth is that they need to be able to do immensely hard, brave, and controversial things that can leave them vulnerable, misunderstood, and undervalued.
So yes, a good chaplain needs to listen, hold space, validate, and put a hand on your shoulder in the midst. But they also need to ask difficult questions; offer painful yet necessary reflections and observations; help you lean into instead of away from your wounds; encourage you to dig deeper than you’ve ever wanted to go; be able to make radical space to hold and explore big and hard emotions like fear, anger, disappointment, betrayal, guilt, sadness, and shame; take you into the wilderness so you can make your own way instead of seeing the work as following “the way” suggested in the academic books and clinical journals; facilitate the process of unlearning they very things that helped you survive but are preventing you from thriving and liberation; get you to somehow trust yourself to unnumb, undistract, and unescape even as you’re scared because you’re still building your own tools to do so; confront really difficult mental and behavioral patterns that have protected you but are now maladaptive; wade into the waves of the unknown until you’re up to your neck and believe not that everything will be ok but that you will handle whatever happens; see beneath the trauma you’ve experienced and affirm your inherent worth even when the flame of your belovedness has gone dim by the pains and burdens of the world; sit in discomfort by choosing silence even when the temptation to give advice or share wisdom seems like it would rescue the both of us; affirm your voice until you can use it even when it shakes; meet you where you’re at instead of giving in to the impulse to pull you to the safer shores we may be standing on; be patient and move slowly in the darkness instead of manufacturing light and hurrying along the way; embrace questions instead of placating answers; help you confront the existential uncertainty and fundamental lack of control in our lives; and facilitate all of this following your lead so you can do it in your own way and time.
In my best moments, this is what I tried to do and be and it required way more than surface of conversations that can all too easily end up endlessly discussing coping mechanisms, offering rote prayer, and “just checking in.”
Instead, I found that it calls forth creativity, expansive thinking, systemic analysis, and an understanding of power dynamics. It requires speaking up and challenging the status quo even when it means being a lone voice, thinking critically for myself in spite of a rewards system designed for being small and quiet and compliant, staying true to who I am and aligned with a patient’s deepest needs even when the tide is against us, fighting for what is possible instead of probable, and refusing to be limited by insecurities of others and brokenness of the system. It pushed me to engage in my own healing, lean on others with an open mind and radically open heart, take risks in the thick of the unknown, and always be willing to be changed in the process.
I’ll especially remember getting down on my knees to hold a mother collapsed in grief;
moving mountains to make DIY Make-A-Wish experiences involving henna artists, Disney princesses, or once even lobbying all levels of government through the state senate to get a young man out of jail to see his sister before she died;
always getting down on the floor to meet patients at eye level, whether they were toddlers playing on matts or in-patient psych teenagers sitting on the floor;
stopping to check on people no matter where they were or what I was on my way to do if their eyes were red from tears, they seemed in distress, or all alone with an invisible burden;
advocating for greater integration between mental health and spiritual care because the research is unequivocal about the critical importance of this collaboration yet in reality the fields remain fractured;
facilitating rituals during extubations on the hospital’s rooftop, the part of the hospital closest to the sky and heavens;
coming in for middle of the night deaths as patients transitioned from Here to There, facilitating story sharing and singing the spirit of loved ones home;
laughing with patients, families, and staff to renew spirits in the midst;
praying with words, actions, tears, touch, presence, breath, inner thoughts, sometimes all at once and with both fullness and emptiness of spirit;
getting to work with residents to develop tools and rituals to manage their exposure to ongoing trauma in an overburdened healthcare system;
advocating for patient agency and liberation when so many medical pathways default to control and isolation;
walking around with a cane seat so I could always sit with whoever I was visiting with, whether we were in their hospital rooms or a hallway;
insisting on doctors sitting to give bad news instead of standing over patients;
massaging more feet than I can count even when I was told I was technically not allowed without being a certified masseuse but doing it anyways because it was sometimes the only thing that could bring relief;
painting more nails that I could ever count to bring a sense of normalcy and beauty into spaces of pain;
getting to know patients deep enough to create personalized room decorations that affirmed the wholeness of their humanity and create a sense of home;
writing literally hundreds of hand-written letters because it’s sometimes the personal touch needed to offer encouragement, affirmation, reflection, and make someone feel seen;
creating games and using play, including one time turning the 7th floor into the Wailing Wall by encouraging a patient to write her prayers on pieces of paper and then wheeling her all around to stick them into cracks and crevices where others might find them, allowing her to feel like her innermost secrets were both safe and spoken, guarded and yet like someone else might hold them with her;
not always knowing what to do or say but showing up anyways;
and working alongside my fellow chaplains who have helped me grow and sustain belief in our sacred work within a broken world.
As I now go forward into the unknown, I am so grateful for all I have learned, committed to keep making good trouble, and hopeful that my actions will spring forth from a place of courageous love in my next chapter.