I am a Certified Spiritual Health Practitioner (SHP) working in long-term care. In this age of COVID-19, I have never felt so needed and so helpless all at the same time. We, as SHPs, have the privilege of working in the homes of the people we serve. Our residents allow us into their most personal places. They welcome me both into their physical spaces and their most vulnerable inner spaces. I am present at the time people enter our facilities and when they leave them; I am often welcomed into their most sacred moments. My colleagues and I regularly offer or are part of the rituals that are offered at the facilities that we work at, both in Long Term and Acute Care.
For me, COVID-19 became all too real when outbreaks occurred in some of my units, and I was unable to offer even the barest of “normal’ rituals. I could not transport people to the lounge to watch televised church services while appropriately distanced. We could not gather in small groups to pray, not even groups of two or three to talk about spiritual matters. How then could we have rituals to calm fearful residents who were very ill or afraid of becoming sick?
I struggled. I stood in doorways wearing all of my personal protective equipment shouting at people who strained to hear and who could not see my shielded lips. For people with dementia to whom I had to reintroduce myself daily, I cannot imagine what I must have looked like to them, wearing the required goggles, mask, and the “gorgeous” yellow gowns and gloves. (I must confess, yellow is not my best colour!) Many residents who were already disoriented by the change in routine became more confused by my ‘doorway visits.’ I was only permitted inside the rooms to attend and pray with the imminently dying or the already deceased.
The outbreak was beyond what I could have imagined. On one unit, most residents were affected. To me, it felt like a war zone. Staff became more frustrated and anxious. I felt even more helpless and useless.
I prayed for guidance. As I meditated upon the question, my gaze dropped to my hands, feeling their heaviness and the emptiness. I opened them praying that they would be filled. My eyes were drawn to something peeking out of my bottom drawer. Upon investigation, I realized that it was my fifteen-year-old iPad that had been languishing under a pile of file folders. My spirit experienced an immediate sense of knowing. I had a plan in place for the residents, for the staff, and for me. I grabbed the device, hoping it would still work. I knew that there were hymns loaded on the ancient tablet. I added a few others, found a small speaker, and was off!
After taking a deep breath, I began with a resident for whom I knew music was an essential part of life. I yelled through the distance and the mask. Would you like to hear a hymn?
What? She yelled back, squinting to hear me better.
I shook my head and laughed inwardly. I put on a hymn I knew she loved.
Oh! How’d you do that?! She exclaimed, not really caring.
I explained while dancing to the hymn. Why not go all in, I figured? Hymns were music, and music was made for dancing!
It didn’t take long before the residents and staff alike took to watching for me and my digital hymnbook. Some staff people looked forward to my visits almost as much as residents. Nurses told me their stories, too, or offered hymn requests. Health Care Aids danced with me. Housekeepers stopped by before their shifts. I heard how frightened people were and I prayed with them. I took prayer requests for others. I said a lot of prayers for families, especially for their children.
This became my COVID ritual of choice during the outbreak.
There is something about music that opens people up, that takes away the rest of what is happening for a moment or two. This offers the “peace that passes all understanding” for me. I hope it does for the people I serve as well.
As we moved past active outbreak (hopefully for good), I have kept up the ritual of bringing music to residents. I know the value of music for aging adults. I know the statistics about how it helps dementia. What I was not prepared for is how much it helped everyone else. I was also not aware of how much I needed it.
COVID and the trauma that we are feeling in healthcare (in my experience) are sometimes beyond what I can put into words. It is sometimes beyond what the staff can put into words. Thus, it comes out in other forms of prayer. It comes out as tears of prayer, praise of prayer, the dance of prayer, or sometimes all of the above…at the same time!
The dancing ritual of prayer has been the most joyful for me. When I come to God with praise and dance, God always lifts my heart into a better place. I am left knowing that there is hope even in this time of difficulty and sorrow. I am given the strength to face anything in my path. But the greatest gift of this ritual is the change that I see in the residents and staff around me. For they change in front of my eyes. I see in them sparks of hope, joy, and possibility. I see life. I see the beauty and love of God springing forth from people who are badly overworked and overtired, or whose living situation is quite unimaginable to most of us.
When a ritual can achieve all of those things, I, for one, think it is worth keeping long after the pandemic ends!
Chris is a Certified Spiritual Care Practitioner, a Spiritual Care researcher and a DMin (Doctor of Ministry). She is a lifelong Anglican who is curious about how God works in people.