Beginnings and Endings

Earlier this week, I dropped my daughter off at camp and asked for a hug. “I won’t see you again until tomorrow morning,” I reminded her. She asked if I was going to be at the hospital and I said yes, I had a late night shadowing a chaplain on-call – learning the ropes.

“Oooo! Can you take pictures of dead people!”

Well, no. For her, my summer of CPE involves a completely unknown world, but she’s still her silly 7-year-old self about it.

Today, the morning after a quiet on-call, I experienced both ends of life, but in reverse order. First thing this morning, an unexpected death. Then, later in the day, a tour through the NICU (neonatal intensive care) where the babies are not only newborns, but tiny, fragile premature babies.

I can’t really write about who I saw or what we talked about – not only because it is against policy to do it, but also because these are some of the most intimate events in the life of individuals and families – and I need to honor that. And yet I want to process what I have experienced, talk about it, write about it. And it seems kind of strange to use the occasion of another family’s crisis to reflect only on myself…

What I can say is that being present for these families is a huge privilege and a gift. Others have been with my family at such times when I could not, and I love the thought that I am, in a small way, paying forward their kindness. And in some ways, I felt a little connection to those to whom I was ministering. Maybe their family names were the same as those on my regular prayer list. Or their sense of vulnerability echoed my own experiences. I’ve had family in ICU and I’ve worried about a longed-for child. I’ve had dear ones caught in these moments that feel out of time and place.

Life can turn so quickly from familiar to strange, from comfortable to difficult. None of us were meant to walk through those changes alone, we were created to go through them together. This summer, for a very short time, I’ll get to be one of the people who can tag along for the journey when people feel like they’ve been left alone or set adrift. I hope at some point they know what a blessing they are to me.

Journaling CPE

Usually, I use this blog to post short reflections on ideas about which I have overthought. Maybe a photo or two, a couple of pithy sentences. But this summer, because I am submerged into a completely new situation, I am feeling the need to make it a kind of journal as well. Still overthought, so you don’t have to.

I am one and a half weeks into my CPE internship and today saw my first patients. Because of the way these things work, I can’t really write about any particular encounters, but it is impossible to go thru the days and not feel like putting a lot of the experiences into words.

What I can say is that, although the hospital seems awfully quiet tonight, there are some people here surrounded by family and friends, some who are loved and supported from afar, and still others who are all alone. There are people who have all the anxiety you’d expect on the night before surgery, and others who are infectiously optimistic in the face of difficulty.

In exactly one week, I’ll be roaming these halls at night for my first solo on-call. I will probably be as anxious as a pre-op patient. I hope I have some of that infectious optimism, as well. I hope if you are reading this you’ll be sending some love and support from afar!

Clouds unCovered

A cloud can cover the beautiful blue, or bring much-needed rain. Is that one blocking the sun, or letting a ray through? It can be hard to tell – or maybe it all depends on what the soil of your heart needs that day. Sun or rain. Light or shade. We all need a little of both – one helps us feel the blessing of the other.

Drinking from a firehose

Lots of people told me the first week of CPE* was like drinking from a firehose – and they were right. That metaphor might even be an understatement. This first week has aimed a torrent of information and anxiety into my brain. The first sip was hospital orientation – compliance, safety, security, required webinars, and, because it is a hospital system, proper hand washing. Next, a gulp of the themes specific to chaplaincy – family systems, theological reflection, cultural humility, pastoral identity, authority…And then I was doused with the necessary tasks related to records and forms, user names and passwords, policies and procedures.

The topic that feels most like it’ll drown me is death and dying – which will be a major theme for my summer. I knew this was part of the experience, but it still holds a great deal of mystery and anxiety for me. Being with people at the moment or shortly after a death is not an experience I have ever had. In addition to the charged emotion of it, there is the whole “business” of dying that we add in the modern era – gathering information and filling out forms.

If facing death raises anxiety for me, the thought of lost sleep during overnight on-call brings a deluge of terror! As an Olympic level sleeper and napper, I worry about the 2 a.m. page – but it will come – along with pages at all other hours of the day and night. This is why we are there, to respond to needs as they arise, not on a schedule.

To survive the flood of anxiety and newness, I have some tools, some life rafts to grab onto. I have a great group of colleagues – some are newbies like me and others are experienced. Throughout the summer, we’ll be reflecting and praying together about what we are learning and how to do it better. (Also, I wouldn’t make it through at all without comfortable shoes. And sweaters with pockets.) And while the prospect of the next ten weeks is daunting, it is only ten weeks – at the end, I’ll move on to another phase of my formation. But with a priceless experience. What feels like drinking from a firehose today will, by summer’s end, have given me just a taste of the life ahead of me.

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*CPE, for the uninitiated, stands for Clinical Pastoral Education, a hospital chaplaincy internship that is required for a lot of people on the path to ordained ministry. It is one of the best ways to learn how to provide pastoral care for people in their greatest times of crisis and vulnerability. And also to experience how that work does not fit your preferred time schedule.