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Acquiring pastoral skills at age 13

Pastor and teacher Trace Haythorn started asking hard questions when his teenage friend died of leukemia

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Trace Haythorn

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Trace Haythorn, now the CEO and executive director of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, learned his first pastoral care skills at the tender age of 13 after his friend died of leukemia.

“I started asking questions a 13-year-old will ask about life and death, and I was really dissatisfied with the pithy responses that make people feel better and me no different,” Haythorn told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty Wednesday during a Facebook Live event called “Grief in a Pandemic.” Hinson-Hasty is the senior director of Theological Education Funds Development for the Presbyterian Foundation.

While attending Austin College in Sherman, Texas, Haythorn completed a pediatric hospice program. “The people who are most alive are on some of those oncology floors, that liminal space between life and death,” he said. “There are few things more honest than a sick kid. I was hungry for that kind of clarity.”

He taught for some years after earning Master of Divinity and doctoral degrees. Part of his current work running ACPE includes the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, which offers weekly webinars for chaplains in all kinds of settings — hospitals and senior care, prisons, military, higher education — getting them tools they need to minister during the coronavirus pandemic.

“A tendency people have in a crisis is to live their lives as if they are going to get back on track,” Haythorn told Hinson-Hasty. “Part of the grief process is there is no track now. This is a time of innovation, even as we grieve in the midst of it.”

A poem the lab holds up for chaplains is Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” which includes these words: “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends upon it; and when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.”

“What does it mean to hold it against your bones when the closest you can get is a digital device?” Haythorn wondered. “It’ll stay that way for a long time.”

Building on the grief work of psychiatrist and journalist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author David Kessler talks about a sixth stage of grieving, Haythorn said, one “written for Presbyterians. It’s about finding meaning. One thing people often try, Haythorn said, is to make meaning out the experience of another person who is grieving. “Please don’t do that,” Haythorn said. Or at least leave it to the gospel writers: Eastertide, he said “is the meaning-making process” around Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Citing the mindfulness work of Jon Kabat-Zinn,  Haythorn urges people to begin noting where they hold emotions in their body. “Is it a deep discomfort in your gut? Pay attention to that,” he said. “Don’t try to figure out what is going on, but thank your gut for caring again, and offer some gratitude that these things are being held (inside you) and you are still going.”

The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab put together lessons around grief and loss, Haythorn said. They’re based on expressions grieving people might say or hear: “I’m so full of rage.” “This doesn’t make any sense to me.” “I don’t feel anything at all.” Included are children’s stories that can be used to help children talk about grief and loss, a topic that led to this comment from Vlimarie Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly, who was listening in to the conversation. She has used Facebook Live to read and discuss children’s books published by Flyaway Books.

“Thanks for bringing up the physical aspects or manifestations of grief,” Cintrón-Olivieri said to Haythorn. “We must be experiencing these right now and confusing it with something else. Thank you for your words.”

Asked by Hinson-Hasty to offer a charge to those listening in to their conversation, Haythorn asked people to “hold each other in the light and with grace, and gently.” If there’s “anything this moment has taught us, it’s what a fragile people we are and what a remarkable world we’re in.”

“In ways that you can savor Nature,” he said, “in ways that you can be grateful for these bodies that we have,” and “in ways you can find one another in a loving spirit that crosses all these boundaries and divides that just seem ridiculous in the face of a virus that doesn’t care about any of these things, may we be to one another the kind of gracious loving presence that the Universe has always longed for, and that we’re just far too good at mucking up.”

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