I am so very, very thankful for Chaplain Kathy Thibodaux (pictured at top on the left) for sharing with us today. I had asked Kathy to write about her experiences as a chaplain during COVID. It gives us a look and feel of things many of you have not seen during this very tough time in the world. Kathy’s message takes the politics out of COVID! Kathy is a true hero for JESUS! God Bless you Sister and all the Chaplains in the world! I have to add in the honor of the families that I officiated at the funerals for their loved one during COVID restrictions, it was very, very difficult.
Chaplaincy During Covid
Sr Chaplain Kathy B. Thibodaux
I stood outside in the cold blistering wind watching from the pavilion door at the National Cemetery before going forward to share the final words for the deceased. His widow sat beside herself center stage, socially distanced from her four family members while honors were conducted. No one could reach out to her, touch her or give her the much-needed comfort a wife hungered for as her husband was laid to rest, one she had not seen for the previous three months due to the current Covid restrictions. As the Honor guard knelt before her and presented her with the folded American flag, my heart broke into a million pieces as I saw her cry alone looking around for someone, anyone, to break the rules and run to her side. No one came. No one was allowed.
As a chaplain during the Covid pandemic of 2020, this scene played out before me numerous times. Each, though, had the same loneliness, despair, unresolved grief and even anger that prevailed in the lives of the people. Whether, I worked as a Hospice chaplain, assisted at funerals, gave death notifications or was on a tragic scene as a fire chaplain during the year, the hurt was the same. People were lost and confused.
Loved ones were forbidden to be with their family members as they died. I became a messenger between the one dying and the ones living. I carried their voices to one another sharing their love, or seeking reconciliation, forgiveness and even saying their last and final goodbyes. The family member should have been the one holding that precious hand; but it was me in my full personal protection equipment (PPE) instead. I was taking on that heavy emotional and sometimes spiritual burden of finality. That burden became a breaking point for me as the year progressed. I could feel that my self-care and own personal mental health was beginning to suffer.
The chaplain duties of my various part-time jobs sometimes unintentionally overlapped with each other. I would be holding a hand one day of someone dying and then performing their funeral services a few weeks later with the bereaved family. I would be on the scene of a horrific accident, giving the needed death notifications and then following up with the mental health and well-being of the first responders that had been witness to the incident. Before Covid, I had been doing this type of work for years, the virus amplified all that I had been holding inside of me and not letting go until now.
Coping skills became more difficult as each person’s story was repeated over and over again. Although, I had taught others how to deal with their own stresses, I was beginning to fail at taking care of myself. What I was seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling began to implant on my brain, I began to have insomnia, nightmares, fatigue and burnout. How could I pour my life into the lives of others when I was running on empty and my soul was so weary?
The nationwide lockdown limited traveling, required mandatory quarantines, kept people from connecting face to face with one another and prevented gathering to worship at their choice of denomination. Our church permanently closed as the members returned to the Navajo Reservation to care for their elders and families. To this day, we still do not know which of our church members and their families survived or passed away during the pandemic. It has been difficult not knowing.
The pandemic and all that it contained took its toil on many people from all walks of life and cultures around the world. It wasn’t all because of death but also due to various other reasons such as isolation from families and the ability to socialize with one another, the fear of the unknown, being a frontline worker or a first responder with constant exposure to an illness that had devastating consequences. Their exposure to the mental aspects depended on their relationship and closeness to the situation. I knew, from my own experience, that I could not continue on the path that I was on, I knew that I had to make choices to improve my own health, my mental capabilities and even my spirit. I made the decision to step away for as long as it took until I was well enough to make the right decisions on how to move forward.
I have found myself living in Psalm 46 on a daily basis. The Scriptures reminded me that God is my refuge and strength. He is my help in times of trouble. The words have been a comfort as I stay still and know that He is my God. In Isaiah 40, the prophet, reminded me that, my strength will be renewed and that instead of being weary, I will not faint or be tired. My soul is being refreshed as I stay in the Word and focus on my spiritual wellness which is also helping with my emotional and physical well-being.
I share my experiences so that others will know that even a chaplain does not have all the answers and can experience the same emotions as anyone else. By being vulnerable, stepping back, taking a break and seeking my own help, it has not been a sign of weakness but rather a step of courage and one of faith to begin a path of healing for myself. It has taken me several months to express myself on paper. I had to wait until I was in the right state of mind to do so. If one takes anything away from this, may you know that it is OK to admit you need help and it is OK to step back or even walk away for your sake and for the sake of your family. I am still healing; but I know that I will get there in time and that I will return to some of the things that the Lord has called me to do. Until then, I will continue to be still, to rest in the Lord and to seek His wisdom on the calling that He has placed on my heart.
Sr. Chaplain Kathy Thibodaux
Serving in New Mexico