By Anne Millington
I grew up in Alaska, and as a girl I often needed to journey out into the deep arctic cold. The air would hit my face first, sticking my eyelashes together and burning my cheeks. Then the cold would bite at my fingers in my gloves. And then, inevitably, it would settle into my feet. Despite my insulated boots. Despite my two pairs of wool socks.
As my freezing feet began to throb with pain, I would continue to walk. To stop would mean giving into the dangerous cold; to keep going would ensure making it to shelter. Slowly, numbness would set into my feet, offering respite from the pain. I had known the numbness would come, and I welcomed it. My numb feet could still sense the pressure of the road beneath me, so I would not fall. Indeed, my feet were somehow energized by the numbness. I felt confident they could get me to safety.
At this point, our coronavirus journey has numbed us, every bit as much as the arctic air once numbed my feet. The full reality of what we are facing has descended, and we are responding as we must. At this time, numbness is nature’s gift to us. When we are numb, we are newly equipped to move forward in the face of traumatic circumstances. We can accomplish the heroic. We can ration resources, we can deploy services, we can save lives. As chaplains, we can support others by understanding and respecting the numbness in others, even in ourselves. We can support others as we would support anyone numbed by trauma, much as we would during a code blue. We can be in the moment with people. We can narrate the moment for people. We can name the moment for people. We can offer them support and help for immediate needs. We can offer prayer. We can care for ourselves in our own numbness around trauma.
To question or to delve too much into our experiences could be dangerous at this time, as reality could be too much to bear. Our numbness is currently protecting us, and to rise to the demands of this moment we need this protection. The time for great spiritual and existential unpacking will come later, once we have survived this time.
Surviving this pandemic will hurt. Just like my numb feet hurt as they warmed and thawed after they delivered me safely in from the arctic cold. When our numbness thaws, the deep extent of our repressed injury and horror will surface. We will take stock of how our lives have been damaged; we will grieve loved ones we have lost. Great spiritual needs will arise at this time as people will need to talk, process and make meaning from this time. Although life will never be the same after we have survived, as chaplains we will be called to support others as we navigate our future landscape.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA.