IU Health Methodist Hospital

It’s OK to not be OK right now

We are IU Health

April 26, 2020

Methodist and Riley chaplains say feelings of grief – over lost lives, lost jobs, a lost sense of security – are normal. “We can’t take that grief away. We can’t fix it. We can’t stop it. But we can be present and come alongside someone when they’re grieving and acknowledge their hurt, their loss, and let them know they’re not alone.”

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Paul Goodenough misses his routine. He misses fighting traffic and picking up his two young children from daycare. He misses being able to take his baby girl into the pediatrician to find out why she is under the weather. He misses being able to go to the grocery store without feeling anxious.

But mostly, he misses walking into his patients’ rooms just to chat.

“I love people. I love sitting with people and talking to them, and I don’t get to do a whole lot of that right now.”

Goodenough is a chaplain with the palliative care department at IU Health Methodist Hospital. All around him are signs of fear and grief.

Grief over the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, the loss of freedom, the loss of normalcy.

“Even at home right now, which is a safe place for most people, we lose that balance, that sense of security,” he said.

And he’s one of the lucky ones – for which he feels guilty sometimes. He is healthy, he has a job (a vocation really), and he has a sense of purpose.

The same goes for Josh Coolman, chaplain at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. He admits to suffering some underlying anxiety like a lot of people are feeling right now, but he is thankful for his work and for his colleagues.

Those feelings of grief that his counterpart at Methodist confronts day to day are ever present at Riley as well. Coolman says the most important thing he can do to support someone – whether a patient, a family or a team member – is to be present, to listen and to provide space for that grief to be acknowledged.

“As a chaplain, one thing I learned early on is that when someone is grieving, we can’t take that grief away from them, Coolman said. “We can’t fix it. We can’t stop it. But we can be present and come alongside someone when they’re grieving and acknowledge their hurt, their loss, and let them know they’re not alone.”

SPIRITUAL RHYTHM-KEEPER

For Goodenough, being a hospital chaplain is like being a drummer in a band. He should know. He does both.

His job is to be a spiritual rhythm-keeper for a group of people of various beliefs. He is guided by faith, of course, but he relies on his vocational training and his compassion to be of service to others.

Like the people who must say goodbye to their husband, wife, brother, sister, father or mother via a video screen. Or the healthcare providers at risk of buckling under the stress of caring for their patients.

What he can’t do when ministering to people is rush in to fix their grief. It’s a natural impulse, but he says the deep psychological and spiritual wounds people are feeling can’t be fixed with a spiritual bandage. Rather, it requires a commitment to journey into the depths, into the complexities of people.

“What is so grievously wrong with the current situation is people are isolated at the time when they need family and friends the most,” he said. “It goes against every impulse we have.”

He’s not just talking about patients who are hospitalized. The same applies to everyone who is self-isolating at home during the pandemic.

The situation is throwing people into uncharted territory, he said.

“You have people who normally don’t have to provide that kind of emotional or spiritual support, and they are encountering distress because they feel they are the only ones in a position to do that,” the chaplain said. “It might be a bedside nurse who is the only one who can be in a patient’s isolated room, hearing a constant refrain from families on the phone of ‘this is so hard, we wish we could be there.’ That is grief. This is a crisis.”

And in crisis people can find solace in their faith.

“From a spiritual standpoint, this is a time to call on your faith, to spend time reflecting and connecting with people who share your values and being together in whatever way you can, expressing mutual support,” he said.

Goodenough turns to his Christian theological training to make sense of the uneasiness people are feeling now. He points to one line in the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament: “For they were very afraid.”

“That’s an OK place to be right now, as the world seems to have crumbled in front of us,” he said.

But it doesn’t have to last.

“For those of us who have never lived through something like this, and maybe didn’t have eyes to see the depth of crisis that previous communities have been through and survived, our traditions and our Scriptures are full of amazing resilience, so they are our lights,” he said.

SON OF MISSIONARIES

Goodenough grew up the son of missionaries, living in South and Central America for several years. He began his full-time work as a chaplain in Chicago six years ago, before moving with his wife, Rachel, to Indianapolis to be closer to family.

His love of people is rooted in his upbringing, so it’s natural for him to want to provide comfort, especially now. What he never expected was to be doing the bulk of his work over the phone. It seemed unnatural at first, but it has opened his eyes.

“It is surprising how much people will share, how much people are still craving that human connection and will open up to a complete stranger on the phone,” he said. “There is a vision now of how many more resources I have for doing my work that I was unaware of. I assumed that talking by phone is not as good as seeing patients and families in person. But after going through this, I don’t know that that’s the case all the time.”

Self-care has never been more important, and Goodenough said meditation and mindfulness help him.

“I’m finding within myself a bigger capacity than I knew just to dwell with the grief,” he said, “maybe even to be OK with it.”

That doesn’t mean to get stuck in it; rather, he tries to make meaning out of it by practicing gratitude for the basics and appreciating a perspective he wouldn’t have if not for the current situation.

For one, he has spent more time outside with his young children.

“That has been a good thing; it’s been life-affirming.”

When he sees reports that cities previously draped in smog have the cleanest air they’ve had in many years – something he didn’t think was possible – he is grateful.

“Things are so difficult right now and so unimaginable, and yet people are saying thank you a lot. There is more understanding than I would have imagined,” he said. “People are more resilient than we give them credit for.”

What will life look like on the other side of this crisis?

Goodenough is honest.

“I have no idea. When am I going to stop freaking out because I didn’t wash my hands before eating a piece of fruit that was sitting on my desk?”

It’s OK to not be OK right now, he said, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“I can see mental health issues percolating on social media. But that kind of venting can further the distress. Turning to the professional and private channels is really important for people to get the help they need.”

In the end, Goodenough said, worrying about what the world is going to look like in three months is not going to help us today.

“We’ve got to just trust in taking care of the things that are right in front of us.”

STAYING CONNECTED

Within IU Health, there are grief groups, chaplains, an employee assistance plan and other entities ready to assist people struggling to make sense of the challenges they face today. In addition, Riley offers Caring Conversations.

Led by a physician, these virtual meetings give team members a safe space to talk about the emotions they are dealing with as they care for patients and their own families.

“The beautiful thing about doing that as a group is finding out that others are experiencing similar emotions,” Coolman said. “Being able to voice that and knowing that we’re in this together helps us connect and say, me too.”

Coolman, who is single and lives alone, finds that sharing his emotions at the end of a particularly hard day with another chaplain is therapeutic.

“It’s nice to do that before going home. That way I can leave it here as much as I can and go home and do self-care – have something good to eat, exercise and read,” he said.

“If I went home and didn’t say anything to anyone, it would be a heavy weight that I would just carry around with me. To be able to speak it out loud, that helps me unburden myself, to be able to put it down and keep walking.”

The IU School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry offers an array of services to help IU Health and IUSM team members and their families manage the emotional and behavioral health challenges of the pandemic. You can also contact your primary care physician for a referral to a mental health professional.

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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