Chaplains Comfort and Grieve During COVID-19

The Rev. Amanda Borchik visits with a young patient at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. Borchik is staff chaplain at the facility. Photo by Cayce Long.

By Jim Patterson –

Flexibility is key for United Methodist chaplains as they cope with families who can’t see their loved ones – sometimes even dying loved ones – because of the coronavirus that has killed thousands as it spreads around the world.

United Methodist chaplains in hospitals, retirement communities, and hospices are all navigating new ground, as the personal contact they count on to help comfort their charges is eliminated or severely cut back. Giving emotional and pastoral support is much more difficult under these conditions.

Heath screenings at facilities like Westminster Retirement Community in Winter Park, Florida, take time and senior management is not exempt, said the Rev. Jeffrey Parkkila, senior chaplain. “We’re temperature checked,” Parkkila said. “Anything over 99 (degrees) we’re not able to enter. … When I go home every night, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to return to work the next day.”

It’s part of a chaplain’s job to also be there for staff, in addition to patients and family members. “I’m trying to remain very focused on maintaining a standard of care that children and families would always receive here,” said the Rev. Amanda Borchik, staff chaplain at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.

“And then also providing more care for our staff. … My congregation is nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists and physical therapists and social workers. Part of my job is to care for them.”

The trickiest question chaplains get in times like these is “Why?” “I think really faithful people have asked that question for a long time,” Borchik said. She noted that Jesus asked similar questions: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” during his crucifixion and “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Borchik said that such questions are often a way of lamenting a bad or tragic situation. “The Psalms also do that,” she said. Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, and 90 are laments of deep sorrow usually evoked following natural disasters, plague, or oppression by other nations.

“Sometimes asking a question is a way to say something we don’t know how to say,” Borchik said. “So I’ve learned to hear that question as part of our grief and learned how to say, ‘I don’t know. But I am here, and I’m really sorry, and I know that God grieves with us.’”

Eric Markinson, hospice chaplain at CC Young Senior Living community in Dallas, said it’s important to remind Christians that Jesus experienced life and death so “we would remember that life continues without end in God’s presence.”

“Now that life and death are so acutely, electrically present in people’s hearts, bodies, and minds, I think it’s an even clearer reminder,” he said. “So I think faith for me is incredibly healing.”

Jim Patterson is a reporter for UM News based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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