Yesterday I witnessed the most gut-wrenching, horrific expression of grief that I could ever imagine. I accompanied a doctor in his horrible task of telling a patient’s wife that her husband did not survive a rather routine, minor surgery. His death was unexpected and tragic. Immediately the woman burst into howling screams, heaves, gagging, gasps for air, convulsions. It was raw, primal, unrestrained – unlike anything I have ever seen.
Yesterday, I grieved, too – I grieved her loss, yes, but I also grieved my wife, my daughters, my dearest loved ones. Do not worry – my wife is still with me, as are my daughters and dearest loved ones. But in witnessing this woman’s grief I tapped into some of my worst fears about losing those I love the most. As she later stood by her husband’s body, holding his head, weeping on his chest, I pictured myself in the same position at my wife’s body, holding her head, weeping on her chest, gripping her hands with all my love – how could I not? How could I not watch this scene and place myself in it? Tears formed in my eyes as I grieved for this woman, grieved for myself.
Following the two hour ordeal I sat among my chaplain peers who were gathered for our daily afternoon report. As soon as I walked into the room they stopped what they were doing, turned in my direction, and asked how I was feeling. I told the story, wept, and sat in silence, surrounded by their caring presence. For about 20 minutes they allowed me to dwell in the grief, to unpack the emotions that were stirred up by such a horrific encounter.
But my grief was interrupted yesterday, cut short due to the fact that this man died near the end of the work day – it was soon time for me to go home. And though I could have stayed at the hospital to remain in and reflect on the myriad emotions of that day, I needed to get home to embrace my wife and girls, and – frankly – to care for my girls as my wife went to a church meeting. Life for me went on, taking away the opportunity to grieve. Time to move on.
And so this morning, on the day after, I found myself grieving my grief. During and immediately following the encounter I was immersed in intimate, raw, primal feelings, the kind of which I would generally avoid or bury somewhere deep in the subconscious. The situation was so chaotic and the emotions were so turbulent – I wasn’t ready to let them go, to move on, to forget about it.
But I did. I had to. Life had to go on. I put on my jacket, walked outside, and began my 90-minute commute through city sidewalks, a crowded commuter train, and the short drive home from the train station. I left – I lost – that moment. And now I find myself wanting to return to yesterday, to the depth of feeling, to the intimacy of the moment, to the awesome and awful power of grief.
It will return to me, I’m sure. Perhaps I’ll be walking down the hall, or visiting with a patient, or hugging my wife, or playing with my girls, or standing at a graveside, or . . . I do not know when, but those feelings, that experience will always be with me. I will never forget that woman’s grief – nor will I forget mine.
5 thoughts on “A Chaplain’s Grief”
What a powerful human experience. It is a blessing for you (as a chaplain, potential pastor, husband, father, friend, sinful human being) to be able to observe, reflect, identify with, and be transformed by such a sad loss. I pray that this real and relevant experience, in some way fundamental to human nature and common to all children of God, will continue to serve as a blessing to you as you journey toward ordination. Such an experience God can use to form and reform you (and all of us) into a more useful, faithful and courageous disciple.
What a difficult and profound time for everybody. The grief of the wife could be said to be obvious, which is not to diminish it. But also there is the grief of the caregivers. What a hard job to tell the wife.
My spouse has always been acutely aware of the fragility of life, but not morbidly so, just realisticly. He hugged me with great emotion yesterday before and after I drove 500 miles. I appreciate his reminders to not let our potential last encounters be less than meaningful.
Post Traumatic Stress flashbacks are not just for soldiers home from combat. They can come to police, fire/rescue, and chaplins as well. The problem is how to keep on caring without caring so much that you destroy yourself.
Thank you for sharing such a personal and emotional experience. I can’t imagine the difficulty.
For me, it seems all too easy to go about life – not thinking much about loss of a loved one. My wife (on the other hand) is a nurse and sees it most everyday, and with her, I see a great sense and appreciation for the the gift of life. Hearing stories like yours (and from her) reminds me of our own mortality.
Having experienced that raw, primitive grief firsthand, I can assure you that those of us “on the other side” yearn for the days when we could go home and get away from the feeling! But of course I understand what you mean. What I know about the human experience is that, sadly, we will all experience grief at some time or another. It’s the price we pay for loving others, I guess. But, as someone once said (wish I could remember who), “a wound is the hole through which God enters” and that grief becomes another opportunity for God to meet us in the messiness of life. Certainly it was the time when I felt God with me the most.
Do take care of yourself as you walk with others on their journeys – I’m certain it is difficult. Peace.
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