Recently, a friend asked me how many deaths I had witnessed in my ministry serving as a hospice chaplain on the “front lines” during a pandemic. Though I experience healthcare as largely a corporate and capitalistic environment, my Unitarian Universalist values embolden me to rise above the corruption and greed that is ever-present so that I can serve out of a place of relational, patient-centered care. I hope that my integrity and unwillingness to suffer injustices means that some good is being done in the oppressive systems of which I am part, and because I believe in being honest about the perils of my profound ministry, I told my friend the truth: “I don’t know. I don’t count bodies, I count memories, and I have over a thousand of those.”
As a hospice chaplain, I have the incredible honor and privilege of journeying with people from the time they are placed on hospice services until the day they take their final breath. Sometimes, I am able to spend months and months with people until they pass. Other times, they are admitted very close to death, so I only get few days with them. And I will let you in on a little secret: in all cases and rather remarkably universally, people always regret the time they did not spend with their loved ones. What people hardly ever talk about is that vacation they never took or the house they drove by for years and never bought. Because in the end, it’s all about the companionship of one another and the wholeness and holiness our communities provide us.
I don’t like to think about people as numbers, and doing so for me personally separates out the humanity of a person. I stopped counting the numbers a long time ago. Instead, I like to remember the way a person laughed, how they looked at their grandchildren, or how their best friend camped out in their bedroom, dutifully holding their hand carrying them into death, often forgetting or not being able to sleep, shower, eat, and other basic survival things, because death of their person was imminent and that was the only thing that mattered to them. My job as a hospice chaplain is not to interfere, but rather to elevate these precious experiences so a person knows that at their death they were cared for, honored, loved - and above all else, they were not alone.
People are often curious about how I care for myself with such a daunting task of facing death on a daily basis, especially during a pandemic. The answer is uncomplicated and unsurprisingly filled with the same wisdom that my patients impart to me time and time again about what is actually the most important thing in this life: people. I get by with the help of people.
Though each day is a little different, there are things I know to be true: I will wade through trauma responses, all types of PTSD, and grief on top of my normal chaplaincy duties. Most days of the week, it takes all of my skill and training to maintain a sort of homeostasis for me to have a healthy relationship to my work. All of our lives, my own included, has become exponentially more difficult since the pandemic, but I am supported in the weariest of hours by the people in my faith whom I can lean on. On the more tough days or when the stress is all too much, I have other community ministers as well as parish colleagues I can call on. Reaching out to others reminds me I am not alone, and that we are all in it together. Alongside the incredible emotional support from my colleagues, the Southern Region Field Staff has also shown up time and time again to help those of us on the front lines and ensure we are supported and held.
Our Congregational Life Staff work tirelessly to connect, companion, coach, and challenge our congregations, and now they are helping to create an additional anchor for community ministers in the larger work we do in the world as well. In return, Community Ministers are infusing our work into the larger UUA. A symbiosis has been born from this partnership, and our Unitarian Universalist values and covenant have further opportunities to live and breathe beyond the walls of our congregations. Simultaneously, our values are recharged, grounded, and anchored in congregations and communities of Unitarian Universalists, recharging those of us in the field to continue growing Unitarian Universalism in the wider world.
For me personally, I have experienced the grace and goodness of southern hospitality in the words and deeds of the Southern Region Staff. Because of that team, I can go on working through devastation and countless losses in my hospice chaplain ministry. This partnership is something we are looking to give to our congregations and we have created something new for Unitarian Universalists in a time in which it is so desperately needed. How this work is being offered now is through workshops, both in the region and nationally. It began last year at Regional Assembly and another workshop on trauma will be offered this summer at GA. Myself, Natalie Briscoe, Connie Goodbread, and Christine Purcell will offer insight and praxis into how congregations can build trauma-informed communities. The workshop is titled “Community in a Post-Isolation Age” and will be offered Friday June 25th at 5:00 pm EDT/4:00 pm CDT/3:00 pm MDT/2:00 PDT.
Both unaddressed institutional trauma and personal trauma can slow and impede progress and keep us from living into our highest selves and threaten to hurt the covenants and tides that bind us together. These workshops offer a way through the heaviness and burdens we are carrying both in our congregations but also experiencing beyond our congregations.
As has been said before, this time of stress and trauma mimics a choir of which we are all a part. When one of us needs to pause to take a breath, we trust that our partners will carry the note forward. In this way, a choir can carry a note indefinitely. The song can remain unbroken and powerful, which proves just how strong our religious tradition is and how much we can do when we work together. Even in our exhaustion and fatigue, we are noticing how much stronger, braver, kinder, gentler, and more courageous we have become. Additionally, the interconnectedness we all share has been broken open and made obvious for us all to gaze upon and marvel at as we have grown closer and more resilient. I am grateful to the various communities that hold me and when I am on my knees praying for the strength to meet another day, exhausted beyond words due to all that I have seen. In these moments, there is a collective voice that whispers to me “I need you to survive,” and I am able to rise once again to meet the new day. My hope is that we all feel the connection and support that I have felt a little more each day.