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Grief Rounds

“…and the God of peace will be with you.”

These four years of seminary have been an incredible gift to me. One of the biggest challenges have been the many and too frequent departures from communities where I have learned and served and grown.

It is, as I mentioned on Sunday, time for me to say goodbye once again to you. I will be at St. Stephen’s until the end of May at which time I hope to know more about what my next steps in ministry will look like.

While I spent a summer in chaplaincy program at Penn Hospital in Philadelphia I discovered something about myself: I don’t like to say goodbye! Daily transitions at Penn were frequent as to keep beds free for new patients in acute levels of care. To exacerbate the situation, I worked on the medical intensive care floor which cared for the patients that had pretty much nowhere else to turn. There were deaths almost daily. I would be with families facing the death of their loved ones one day, and there would be new faces and new families the next.

Twice a month, the residents, social workers and chaplains and others from that floor would get together for what were called “grief rounds.” In such a busy and intense environment this was a rare chance to sit down for 30 minutes with the whole care team and just talk.

The young residents often had the hardest time saying anything at all about those who had died in the last two weeks. Many were matter of fact about it, clinical, or fixated on clinical procedures or fascinated with a disease’s progression. At some point, the senior chaplain would just stop the conversation, every time, and say something like, “ok, this is grief rounds. What we do here is talk about how we are dealing with all of the loss and pain that we ourselves are dealing with every day on this floor.”

The residents would usually harrumph a bit and then fall silent or look to their watches to see how long this “sharing” session would end. Almost without fail, after a time, someone would say a name.

On one day which I remember well, someone said a name. It was someone who was a young mother, survived by two children and her partner. The room fell even more silent. Then someone told a story about how hard the death had been for him. Everyone in the room began speaking, since all were touched in some way by the death of this woman, even the strong, silent types among the physicians. Ten minutes went by quickly of stories and even some laughter. The chaplain reined in the conversation and ended with: “it is important to remember the big toll that death takes on us, whether we like it or not, whether we think we’re strong or not. This time together has made us all better caregivers. Naming the names and sharing our grief makes us the humans that we need to be in this work: confident and decisive and also empathetic and connected.”

That has stuck with me these many years.

Even though my departure is not a death, my time in chaplaincy taught me much about the important of saying goodbye.

It is of utmost importance to say goodbye and to reflect on what our time together has meant this year. This is the work of Christian community: to say hard things, to risk saying goodbye, to give thanks for all that has been, to mourn lost opportunity and challenges, and to step forward in trust into the future that God is writing with us. As God’s people in the world, we must always strive to be “confident and decisive, but also empathetic and connected.”

Paul gives the Christian community at Philippi these words:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you."

In these next few weeks, in light of these words of Paul, I hope to share with each of you how much our time together has meant and I hope that you share with me your blessings and godspeed so that we can grow stronger and yet more connected.

--Douglas Barclay

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