We chaplains once again find ourselves on the front lines during a major worldwide disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic has caused sickness, death, confusion, fear, disbelief, family separation, isolation and mayhem throughout the world, affecting every nation, nationality, religion and race, as well as non-human life, in ways we have never seen before. It has also exposed fault lines in our society, highlighting long-persistent dysfunction and inequity in our common life.

Many of us have witnessed or heard of great wars, major disasters and other life-changing events throughout the years -- on American soil, most recently including the AIDS epidemic, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the horrible event in New York City on September 11, 2001. As horrific as these events were, they also brought out the best in many of us as human beings, those who sought to unite amidst all the devastation.

In particular, 9/11 brought about human suffering that plagues us to this day. First responders and families are still dying from the effects of disease related to those events, including psychological, emotional and spiritual trauma. Today we are fighting an invisible enemy called COVID-19, and once again we find first responders, doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, teachers, funeral directors, environmental service workers, security personnel, those in food service, transit workers and others pulling in the same direction to “flatten the curve” and beat this enemy, even while facing and grieving the evils this pandemic has unveiled.

At these times, there is another – often overlooked – first responder, providing vital support to those who are sick, injured and otherwise on the “front lines.” Certified healthcare chaplains and spiritual leaders help bring comfort and meaning to a seemingly hopeless situation, providing spiritual, religious, emotional and existential support to all under their care. They remind those who are suffering that there are brighter days ahead. They provide a place where everyone can express themselves without judgment, sharing their fears and hopes as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” (Psalm 23).

Almost twenty years after the event, at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, families are encouraged to visit and care for their loved ones. Through memorials and monuments of this kind, friends and even strangers can turn to one another in solidarity, living into the reality that the victims of this disaster are forever remembered and loved by those they left behind, and by their Creator.

However, during these early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, such public and open remembrance of our victims is not yet possible. Families and friends are not allowed to visit patients because of policies that are necessary to minimize the spread of the virus. This adds an extra layer of stress not only to the sick and dying, but also to all loved ones keeping them in mind, those who so desire to be with them in what often turn out to be their final moments.

In this excruciating reality, healthcare chaplains are present to help relieve some of this stress and care for all people affected by the isolation this virus brings, reminding them that in a sense, we are together in solidarity even while apart. Spirituality and science both play a crucial role in reminding people of their invaluable dignity as human beings, especially in this time when dehumanization can be one particularly disturbing effect of COVID-19 – think, for instance, of the makeshift morgues in New York City, or of people dying in isolation across the world. One service that healthcare chaplains provide is to remedy such potential dehumanization through the use of ritual – whether performed outside a patient’s room, over the phone, or in a hospital morgue, with or without family present. Even the very meaning of the word “present” is in flux, as new technologies – especially FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx and the like – are used to bring patients, families and clinicians together. This includes spiritual care providers, who are now empowered to offer their prayers and sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving and remembrance, all through digital media. This is how chaplains are honoring the incalculable worth of each human being affected by COVID-19 – patients, providers and families alike.

Accordingly, at this moment, chaplains and religious leaders find themselves performing funeral services and grief support to family and friends, whether through digital technology or in person, socially distanced, at a burial site. This is simply the beginning of our collective grief, and is compounded when a loved one cannot say a traditional “goodbye” to the deceased, as would have been standard before the pandemic. In these cases where grief is magnified, spiritual care providers are there with families every step of the way, in some cases even at the gravesite, providing care and reminding people that they and their loved ones are not simply numbers or a casualty, but creatures with eternal value, loved by God exactly as they are.

GOD says in The Qur’an, “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East or West; but it is righteousness—to believe in GOD and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain or suffering and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of faith, the GOD fearing”. (2:177)

In their own way, chaplains are and always should be considered vital as they carry out their essential duties in a time of disaster, providing religious and spiritual support for all in need.

Imam Yusuf Hasan, BCC is the first board certified Muslim chaplain in any certifying professional chaplaincy association. Chaplain with HealthCare Network and Spiritual Care Association. Specializes in Pediatric Palliative Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Zachary Fletcher, Resident Chaplain at New York—Presbyterian Hospital and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

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