EDITOR’s NOTE: On March 11, 2020, World Health Organization Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the world, “There are now more than 118,000 cases of COVID-19 in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals. In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher. WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic. Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly.” As the world marks the second anniversary of the start of this pandemic, we invited a chaplain to write about the spiritual toll of these two years as well as sources of resilience.
Remembering the legacy of the 6 million we have lost
By DANIEL KIDDER-McQUOWN
Recently, I met a patient who was the spark that led me to write this article. Let’s call him Gregory. At the time I met him, Gregory had been suffering from COVID-19 for an extended period, and his situation was getting worse. I had been called in for spiritual support, and we prayed together with his family. He had a wonderful family, career, faith, and religious community. Sadly, and despite the best efforts of the care team, Gregory eventually died from complications due to COVID-19.
I share this sad story for a couple reasons. First, I want to highlight the plight of those who continue to suffer. I want to give a window into what health care workers are still dealing with. The virus continues. While we have come a long way in managing the pandemic, the virus continues to exact a heart-breaking toll on patients, families, and staff.
The other reason for sharing about Gregory has been his impact on me. Meeting him was like the tipping point for my reflections. These thoughts had been stirring and simmering for months. Gregory’s loss helped me realize it was time to write some of these down.
I share these reflections in hopes that Gregory’s legacy, and the legacy of all those who have suffered from COVID-19, may prove fruitful to you. Perhaps it will spark your own writing and sharing about spiritual lessons.
Consider the Human Toll
I am a health care worker.
Throughout the pandemic, I have suffered like countless other health care workers, carrying the accumulated stress of coping. I’ve seen the toll this stress has taken. I’ve been through each “surge” or “wave.” Many of my colleagues who are nurses, respiratory therapists, techs, and doctors have faced symptoms much like post-traumatic stress disorder. Some moved away from the virus, away from the constant suffering, onto other clinical units or other health care facilities. Some have taken a hiatus from serving. Some have left health care altogether. Many have been infected themselves. And all health care workers have made immense sacrifices. They gave of themselves before the pandemic, but this grew to a heroic level in the face of COVID-19.
The suffering goes far beyond the hospital. Everyone in America and the world has been affected by the pandemic, as the recent numbers show over 6 million dead around the world and over 900,000 dead in America. Gregory’s death highlighted this reality for me. An entire family system and religious community were devastated by his loss.
The virus created a universal human experience. Even if a family has not suffered an immediate loss, everyone knows someone who has. Everyone has felt the pandemic’s impact.
A Deeper Spirituality
The pandemic has forced me to reach deeper into my spirituality. In order to continue to serve effectively as a hospital chaplain in the face of the pandemic, I needed to grow inwardly. I needed to find fresh sources of renewal for myself, if I was going to help patients, families, and staff to do the same.
Here are some of the spiritual lifelines on which I rely.
Throughout the pandemic, one of my sources of renewal has been my prayer life. This has been a constant blessing, filling me up and guiding me whenever–and wherever–I have needed it. The metaphor of “living water” was used by Jesus to describe renewal:
Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (John 4:14)
For me, prayer has been this living water, my primary source of renewal and direction.
My prayer life has deepened. I remember my prayers of March 2020. At that time, we were all coming to terms with the scale and terrible power of the pandemic. At that time, my prayers were focused on immediate needs. How can I serve others in the face of the unknown? How can handle my fears and minister effectively? How do I minister to people who have lost everything?
Despite these difficult prayers, I found great solace. I discovered a sense that God had called me, and all health care workers, to such a time as this.
Fast-forward to 2022. We are now on variant number five (Omicron). The pandemic has become part of daily life. Now, my prayers have expanded in every way possible. I have found myself continuing to pray for the same things as I did in March 2020, but also for countless other things.
For example, I have learned to pray to completely let go of the future. I have learned to pray to release the future into the hands of God. “Let go and let God,” has become my lifestyle. The pandemic has made crystal clear to me that humans are not, ultimately, in control. And I am certainly not in control of the universe.
This prayer of letting go has had an odd, paradoxical effect. The more I have let go of the future into God’s hands, the more I have felt God’s guidance. By letting go through prayer, I haven’t let go of my responsibilities. On the contrary, I feel more empowered than ever by God to make a difference.
Suffering is Universal
Throughout the pandemic, I reflected on the Buddha’s teachings on suffering. In Buddhism, it is important to accept that “suffering” (dukkha in the Pali language) is a universal part of the human experience. Please note that dukkha has also been translated as pain, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and other words. But the point is, it is important to accept that everyone suffers in life, and no one escapes this reality.
I found COVID-19 reinforced this essential lesson. No one escaped the effects of the virus. Even if a person was not personally infected, they knew people who were. The virus has been a global, universal suffering.
Acknowledging the universal nature of suffering has been freeing. It has allowed me to see the pandemic as another part of life. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, I have learned to accept the virus, and therefore be free to experience all the other parts of life.
Being in health care has helped this. At the end of the day, COVID-19 has taken its place alongside all the other viruses that medicine has had to deal with.
In Buddhist practice, there is no spiritual progress without the acceptance of the inevitability of suffering. I have certainly found this to be true in my life. The pandemic reinforced and deepened this lesson. As the pandemic evolved, I evolved. The more accepting I became of COVID-19 as a part of a universal reality, the freer I was in other aspects of my spiritual life. The more accepting I was, the more I grew.
Enjoying the Little Things
The pandemic taught me to value life more than I had before.
This has been especially true with the little things in my world, which, as it turns out, are not “little” at all. They may have been regular, and I may have taken them for granted, but not any longer. I found myself valuing being at home more than I had before, appreciating my loved ones and friends more deeply, enjoying small tasks and chores for thoroughly, and finding more joy in small rewards and small pleasures.
I have found myself valuing my trips outside more than I had before. Over the past two summers, my partner and I have found a way to get out in nature more, and we have appreciated these trips more thoroughly than perhaps we did in the past. Now, trips to a restaurant or a grocery store are somewhat magical; we know what it was like to have it all taken away.
The pandemic has reinforced every compassionate instinct.
We have been reminded, again, that life is incredibly fragile and precious. It has been made clear once again that resiliency happens because we care for each other, and for ourselves. Without this compassion and care, we would not have made it this far through the pandemic. With this compassion and care, we can make it through anything.
Inviting You to Share
If you have your own reflections on spiritual lessons from the pandemic, please share them in the comments section of this article, or email me at [email protected]. I would love to read them and appreciate your journey.
Care to learn more?
WHO IS THIS WRITER? The Rev. Daniel Kidder-McQuown serves as night chaplain at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. As a board certified chaplain since 2001, he has served in health care and higher education settings, as well as interim ministry in local churches. Dan, his spouse Kari, their family (including dog Esther and cat Spicy Pickles), all reside in Albion, Michigan.
A REFLECTION IN POETRY. This week, Daniel also has written a reflection in poetry that you may want to read and share with friends. He calls it, ‘Pandemic Saints.’
FOR FURTHER READING: Daniel also suggests that readers may want to see:
- An NPR interview with Mike Yonkers, a chaplain at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.
- The COVID-19 Resources page sponsored by the American Psychological Association.
- The resource page at Daniel’s own health care system for professionals who may want to become chaplains—as well as the home page of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, based in Atlanta, Georgia.