This blog was written by the Rev. Jennifer M Creswell. Jennifer has served parishes and hospitals in Portland and New York as a priest for 15 years and is currently serving as a healthcare chaplain at Hillsboro Medical Center and Tillamook Medical Center. She also supports families through transitions as a postpartum and end-of-life doula.

Please note that this reflection mentions deaths related to COVID-19.

An ICU nurse said to me recently, “it feels like people are meaner this time around.” In the first wave of COVID, it felt like we were all in this together. Now, nearly a year after the vaccine has been available, we are divided. This nurse wasn’t exaggerating. She told me of patients and families harassing her, calling her constantly throughout her shift demanding untested treatments they’d read about online. She said she’d been threatened with legal action by patients she’d treated—patients who presented to the hospital struggling to breathe but who denied the existence of COVID, much less their own diagnosis. This nurse and others describe a strange new reality in which healthcare providers are suspect, even dangerous to certain people. Patients who take an aggressive stance against whatever the medical team recommends, so deep is their mistrust.

I’ve been reflecting on this, and what it means to be a follower of Christ in this time, from my perspective as a hospital chaplain (in the Portland area and at the coast) in the time of COVID.

Our faith compels us to move toward Oneness—closer union with the trinitarian God, with other humans and with all creation in the recognition that we are, fundamentally, interconnected and that we belong to each other. But how do we practice this moving toward union when we humans are so divided on the surface of things?  

In the hospital, I see some of the things that divide us and the things we continue to hold in common. When a loved one is sick, families worry. When someone dies, their people grieve. People with and without COVID, for the most part, would rather not be in the hospital. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve spent more time than usual walking with unvaccinated COVID patients as they die and with their families. Their grief is familiar to me; their longing for things to be different, their anger, their frustration, their mystification. These are often present in various forms when a loved one is dying. What I don’t hear from these patients and families is regret. They maintain that the vaccine is dangerous, that COVID is mild, or that it is made up altogether.

People are going to the cross for their beliefs. They are dying—and watching loved ones die—rather than compromise their beliefs. These beliefs are about COVID, sure, but they are about something else: about identity, about autonomy, about fear, about worthiness (the need to be seen, the need to be valued, the need to have one’s opinions—and more, one’s life—validated).

I’ll be honest with you: I struggle with these deaths. Not with supporting the patients and their families, but with the (to me) unnecessary suffering I see. The father, the mother, the brother dying before their time and leaving families bereft. It seems selfish, to go all the way to death in order to be right. But there’s got to be more to it than that.  What would people die for? That is the question I hear coming out of this. What would I die for? What is it that these-who-would-be-martyrs gain from going all the way to the grave?

As a Christian, as someone whose God also submitted to death, these deaths make me pay attention. I don’t know what they mean. The questions haunt me. And sadden me. And stir my compassion and my imagination.