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Chaplains describe pandemic-caused trauma and grief experienced by families, patients and staff

Union Presbyterian Seminary hosts a panel discussion with graduates who work as chaplains in health care settings

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Graduates of Union Presbyterian Seminary serving as chaplains in health care facilities took a moment Friday to affirm one another’s work while discussing the long-term impact of trauma and grief in their communities and on the facility they serve during webinar hosted by the seminary.

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Lynn McClintock did a graveside service recently for the son of two residents she serves at a long-term care facility for seniors in Richmond, Virginia.

The man died during the COVID-19 pandemic, so as director of pastoral care at Westminster Canterbury in Richmond, Virginia, McClintock presided over the service while a member of the funeral home staff held out her cell phone and videotaped.

Then they downloaded it to YouTube for the parents to watch. Sadly, the parents were not living in the same part of the campus facility.

“I can tell you that was one of my hardest days in ministry,” McClintock said. “Having to take my laptop into two different parents’ rooms and show them their son’s funeral service.”

A 1987 graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, McClintock was one of four Union graduates sharing their experiences Friday during a Zoom panel discussion hosted by the seminary.

Thinking about the long-term intergenerational impact on families and their communities unable to experience the ritual of being together when a loved one dies, McClintock said, is a huge unknown.

“I know how hard it was for me,” she said.  “Think of the funeral home directors. It’s something we’re all dealing with.”

One of the ways the Rev. Laura Kelly, chaplain at Cleveland Clinic Hospice, has tried to deal with the trauma and grief during this time of physical distancing is by helping residents build their own rituals. She said people can find within their own grief journeys ways to address what they’re feeling.

So while telling her patients that she knows she can’t physically hold their hand, Kelly asks them if they can both put their hands on their hearts, and then rest their minds as if they’re together.

“At the end of the day people want to know they’re connected,” she said.

By listening to and affirming what they’re going through, Kelly, a 2017 Union graduate, can mark what her patients are feeling in the moment.

Kelly said she often reminds patients that she would be with them if she could. Then she tells them what she can do — listen to them and affirm what they’re going through to note what they’re feeling in the moment.

The two other chaplains who were part of the panel discussion, the Rev. Dr. Matthew Sauer and the Rev. Dr. Harry Simmons, talked about the increasing role technology is playing in rituals that continue to occur during the pandemic.

Simmons, a 1984 graduate, serves as a staff chaplain at one of five veteran polytrauma centers in the nation, in Richmond. Acknowledging the anxiety among residents and staff, he said patients at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Medical Center use electronic tablets to talk to chaplains, who are outside their room.

“Medical staff says if you don’t have to, don’t go in, even though the patient can see us on the iPad,” he said.  “You’re present without being present.”

As co-pastor of the Manitowoc Cooperative Ministry, Sauer, a 1996 Union graduate, also serves as an on-call chaplain at a local hospital in Wisconsin.  He said that even when technology is used to connect patients to the families, it can come with challenges. One example: A family needed a piece of equipment to make the connection happen with their loved one. But hospital staff couldn’t get it to them because they were quarantine.

The hospital also struggles, Sauer said, with questions like, “What happens when a patient can’t hold up a phone or iPad to connect with staff or loved one?”

“Do you potentially expose someone to hold that electronic device up for them?” he asked.

During the last few weeks, Sauer has spent much of his time listening to staff members, trying to provide care for them by listening to their anxieties. Topics include what they’re reading and hearing about those in the community opposed to staying home — and how they’re being treated by some as they walk out in scrubs in public places.

“Sometimes that is not always met with positive responses,” he said.

When the coronavirus crisis first began, chaplains had to rethink everything as they tried to maintain contact, ritual, worship and pastoral care. Doing chaplaincy from a distance was a rapid change. Now, as they’ve learned how to find intimacy and connection over the phone or in video or conversations on a tablet, it’s time, Kelly said, to start thinking about what the process will be for transitioning back to face-to-face visits while ensuring that patients and families choose what is safest and most effective for them to feel supported.

“So, it’s constant change and constant learning, but I think chaplains are wonderful innovators in ministry, so we just go with it,” she said.

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