“Simply being with someone is difficult because it asks of us that we share in the other's vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of the uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination. (p. 12)”
― Henri J. M. Nouwen (Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison)
My shift was nearing its end. I had had numerous fruitful visits and had documented them accordingly. I was filling in for the head chaplain who had been out ill for several days. Deciding that one more quick round through the Emergency Department, Trauma Room and family waiting area would be a good way to end the day, I slowly walked through the main hallways looking for someone who might need attention.
All seemed at peace. I walked toward the family waiting room, just off the ambulance entrance and spotted three young men sitting next to one another. All three had their heads bowed, looking penetratingly beyond the floor tiles within their field of vision. As I approached, one of them looked up.
“May I help you with something? My name is Pastor Pat. I am one of the hospital chaplains, and I thought I’d check in with you to see if there is anything you need.”
In slightly broken English, the young man said, “Yes. We are waiting to hear about our friend who was injured.
”“Have you spoken with anyone yet?”
“Yes. Gina said that she would be right back.”
Gina was the patient representative assigned to the Emergency Department. She was the primary go-between and kept family members informed of the condition and where abouts of their loved ones.
“Has she given you any information ?”
“Well, we know he was brought here. He had an accident, we think. We were called in the middle of the night and drove in from Chicago. It was on our way from Chicago that we got a call that our friend died.”
It was at this point that the young man sitting to his far left began to weep silently, bending over as if he had been hit in the stomach. He looked characteristically Asian as if he had come from China or a country nearby. The other two men looked more Eastern European.“I am so sorry. Do you mind if I wait with you?”
“No. We would like that. This is Parvanda. This is Hamasa, and I am Faraz.”
After a few moments of silence, I excused myself so that I could talk with Gina. I wanted to find out where things stood and what had happened. “I’ll be right back.”
Gina emerged from the Trauma Room and looked like she was on a mission.”
May I speak with you for just a moment?”
“I’ll be right with you. I just have to give this paperwork to the clerk.”
Gina came up behind me and then I pulled her aside. “What is happening with the patient who was treated last night? The one who had the trucking accident. The three young men in the waiting room look terribly distraught.”
“I’m trying to piece together what happened. So far, I know that the patient was driving a truck and had stopped in a truck stop to make an adjustment to the fittings between his two trailers. Something happened, and the trailers came together, crushing him between them.”
Her face did not betray any emotion. Gina had to carry this visage with her everywhere she went. She had to be the face of reason and fact to those she cared for. Meanwhile, I know I was wincing and shaking my head.“How awful!”
“Right now, I have a call in to the State Police, and I’m waiting to hear from the doctor who treated him last night.”
“OK. I’ll go sit with his friends.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
I re-entered the room, and took a seat next to Faraz, the young man who has spoken to me earlier. We sat in silence for what seemed like a very long time.
“I just saw him two days ago. I can’t believe this has happened.”
He turned to his friends and spoke to them in a language I did not recognize.
“Tell me about him.”
“Well, we are all about the same age. He was the oldest--23. We came to this country from Tajikstan. We all took trucking jobs so that we could save money for college. We never intended to do this for long, but it pays very well.”
“Have you known one another long?”
“Our families are close. I’ve known Abish for many years, but Parvanda knew Abish from the time they were babies,” he nodded to his friend on the far left, the one who had been weeping.“I don’t know how I am to tell his family.”
“His parents are unaware of the accident?”
“Yes. We will probably tell our parents, and then they will go to his family and tell them.” He stopped and took a deep breath with effort. “He was their only child.”
I am fighting back tears as I imagine the scene when they are told.
“Will they be able to come here for his body?”
“No. They couldn’t afford that.”
Never. Never seeing your child alive again. Not even able to see him in death. How does one cope with that? Sending him to America for a brighter future...and now, he is gone. There is no future.
“What is your faith tradition?”
Hamasa, the young man in the middle had not yet spoken except in his native language to his friends. He now took the lead. “We are Muslim.” This is good for me to know. Good and bad. Good that I now know that I cannot hug them. I learned this from my dear chaplain friend, Kamau. I am old enough to be his mother, but I cannot hug him as a female, and I came very close to making this mistake not too long ago after seeing him on the floor of the hospital where I received half of my training.
I had been visiting my mother’s cousin who had recently had a stroke, and had visited with my first cousin at her bedside. Jennie and I had not seen one another for years. She had had bariatric surgery and had lost well over 150 pounds. She was contemplating having surgery to tighten up her skin which sagged mercilessly. We traded stories and then hugged. It was then that I caught a glimpse of Kamau out of the corner of my eye. He then saw me. I excused myself and walked quickly over to him holding out my arms--which he then brought together so that he could hold my hands. Alas, no hug for an old friend, but I do respect that, and try to honor it. We talked briefly. He was having a hard time with tending to patients in palliative care, those who without the help of medical science, would have died. “I wonder about the morality here,” he confided to me.
We parted, and I continue to think of him on and off--the one to whom Jesus chose to appear...Kamau is Sufi. I know that God is working powerfully in and through him.
My mothering instincts were blocked once again when I knew that these three young men, young enough to be my sons, almost grandsons, were Muslim.
Gina came into the room. “We have located the rest area where your friend was injured, and I have written it down for you on this paper so that you can go and explore. Also, there’s a doctor here to talk with you.”
All three young men raised their heads simultaneously. “This is Dr. Evans.”
I stood up so that she could take my seat. She carefully sat down, looking each man in the eyes one after another. “Your friend was brought in last night around 3:10 am. I was not the doctor who treated him, but I spoke with him just a few minutes ago. When your friend was brought in, he did not have any vital signs. We performed CPR on him, but were not successful. He was badly crushed, and we believe that he died instantly. There was little or no suffering. We thought you should know that.”
“Do you think someone else was involved? Do you think maybe he was hit over the head and put in between the trailers?” Why is it that we always want to look and ascribe blame? If there was no one else around who could have caused this, did God cause this?
“We found no evidence of anything except the crushing. We will, of course, have to turn his body over to the medical examiner to do an autopsy.”
Silence. And then, “That would be good.” Conversation in their language was flowing freely now and wafting its way around the room.
“Do you have any more questions? Again, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
More conversation. “Is he still here? Could we see him?”
Gina responded, “Yes. I’ll have to let the morgue know, and they will prepare him for viewing. Let me make some calls.” She moved out the room, as did the doctor.
We were alone again, just the four of us. What does one say at a time like this? Nothing. Silence is not only soothing, it is necessary and allows for the processing of weighty grief that begins with shock.
It was about thirty minutes later that Gina came in. “The body is ready for viewing. Could you please gather up all of your belongings and come with me?"
We slowly stood and made our way to the door. Gina took the lead, and I brought up the rear. This was so surreal, for me as well, as if the shock and denial had escaped from the room, following me and then entering into me. Like a virus it began spreading throughout my entire body, and I could feel its dull ache.
We walked down the long hallway to the elevator reserved for supplies, patients and grieving families. When we got off, we walked through a heavy metal door encountering a security guard, a nurse and an emergency department tech. They stood just outside of the viewing room. You see, in this hospital which hosts many significant crime victims, bodies must be viewed behind glass. No one is allowed to touch the body. The viewing room is tastefully decorated, and the body resides behind the glass. There is an optional velvet curtain that can be closed before and after the viewing.
When we entered the room, the curtain had been opened. And there was the young victim, his body covered except for his head. His best friend, Parvanda, collapsed in grief when he came up to the glass. By this time, all three boys crowded around the window. Tears were flowing freely. I stood in the background, placing my hand on each shoulder one after the other. And then I stood back and watched and prayed. Ministry of presence. That is what I am giving these young men. There is nothing I can do to lessen this grief. The shock of seeing their friend behind glass, unbreathing, unseeing, immovable.
I silently moved back into the hallway, fighting my own tears, knowing that dissolving into grief myself would not be helpful and yet knowing, too, that when the spiritual care person cries, it is human and bonding and real.
Moving back into the room, I checked for the usual concrete things--were there enough boxes of tissue? No, there will never be enough tissue for this kind of grief. This, of course, in no way minimizes the grief of other families. I accompanied another family to the viewing room first thing Christmas Day. Their mother had pushed aside the suggestion that she go to the ED the day before, and then she had suffered a heart attack and was gone. She was 53 years old. Each family member had grieved differently--some keened loudly while others stood immobile and stoic. Some attended to other members of the family; others needed to be attended to. One daughter requested a wheelchair for her sister who was unable to stand up, she was so weighed down by her grief. The patient’s sister shared with me that her son had committed suicide on Christmas Day just six years ago. How much, O Lord, can one family bear?
Seeing these three young men grieve shook me to my core. Their friend was the oldest, and they were having to face his death. Unexpected. Unfathomed. Unfair. The mother who had died had been ill for some time. This young man was strong, vibrant, had plans for his future. Was hopeful, energetic, full of life. There is no comprehending this kind of loss.
So, we stood as one before the glass. The boys cupped and raised their hands in prayer to Allah. Gina was concerned that they were taking pictures with their I-phones. “No,” I assured her. “They’re praying.” She had not been close enough to see. We waited, and then the young man who had spoken at length with me, Faraz, closed the curtain on his friend. Gina took him aside and explained the process of finding a funeral home and having the funeral home call the hospital or medical examiner to obtain the body. She then directed them into the elevator. We exited and walked through the doors into the main lobby of the hospital. Parvanda was weeping loudly. Other visitors turned to look. Gina led the way to the revolving doors and I, once again, brought up the rear. We stopped a few feet away from the doors.
Gina wished them well and said good-bye. I stood off to one side and then stepped up to say good-bye to each one.
I took Hamasa by the hand. “God be with you.”
I stepped up to Faraz. “If there is anything more we can do, please call.”
I began to step over to Parvanda. He leaned into me, putting his arms around me briefly, and then pulled back. He is just a boy, Lord. He needs his mother. I knew I could not be this for him, but I did tell him that I would be praying for him for many days and weeks to come. All three of them voiced their gratitude and disappeared through the revolving door.
My shift had ended almost an hour ago. We are requested to adhere strictly to our shift times to bring order to the staff and moving forward, to the overall health of the hospital. It did not matter to me that I might be docked that hour. Ministry of presence. My calling was one that reported to Someone higher than hospital administration. I think they knew that. I never did check my pay stub to see if I had been paid the extra hour. It really didn’t matter.