By Jennifer W. Paquette
The young Black man raged in despair and anguish. His wife and firstborn child had died that morning. His wife had begun bleeding, and he took her to the community hospital near their house. The baby had spontaneously aborted, but his wife kept bleeding. “I told them there was something wrong with her, but no one would listen to me. No one!” he yelled. “They acted as if I wasn’t even there.”
The hospital had transferred her to the trauma center where I was working, but she died before she arrived. Now, the husband and ten or so family members were waiting for “the chaplain,” and their grief carried down the hallway. On my way to the room, one of the ED physicians commanded, “Get them quieted down. They’re too noisy and upsetting other patients.”
From the audible wails, I suspected this was a Black family. “It is how they grieve,” I told him. “They must be allowed to grieve in their own way. There is no stopping grief.” More than a little surprised by his directive, I was also irritated. This was a big-city trauma center that served a mostly Black population. The physicality of their cultural grieving was normal. They grieved as they prayed, their entire bodies participating in the movement of their souls.
I had history in Black culture, and perhaps for that reason, I believed myself to be more astute than I was. For the first six years of my life, I was raised by a Black woman, whom I loved dearly. Later, my family moved near Washington, D.C., a predominantly Black city where power and authority were vested in the white population. In college, I lived near a Black church. Their Sunday mornings of praise for Jesus came alive in their hymns, many of which were vestiges of slavery. I felt joy in their midst and an enthusiasm for Christ missing in my white Catholic church.
Years later, my CPE class reminded me often that where there was an older Black woman in the hospital, I would find her. And I feel driven to advocate for Black patients in a clinical setting.
But despite all that, I was blind to the underlying causes of that young father’s rage. It wasn’t until much later that I realized his wife’s color had alienated her from the clinical care she should have received. Also, I did not understand that the race of the young father prevented his voice from being heard. I understood the misery of his loss, but I failed to understand and support his outrage that his family was invisible merely because of the color of their skin – and that this was likely one more repetition of a lifelong pattern.
I do not ever want to be appalled again by my lack of insight in the moment. Since then, I have worked to be more intentional, especially in discovering the causes of events. I must examine more closely my actions, reactions, purposes, and motivations among communities of color. I must find my way into the depths of their experiences. I must be more aware of our separateness and seek the place where the boundaries fade and we are joined by our humanity.
Jennifer W. Paquette, BCC, is now retired and previously served as director of spiritual care at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle.