A Joyful Sorrow

May 5, 2020
Rev. Erica Rose Long, MDiv '16 (L) and Sarah Byrne-Martelli, MDiv '02
Rev. Erica Rose Long, MDiv '16 (L) and Sarah Byrne-Martelli, MDiv '02 / Courtesy photo

Providing care and comfort for those with COVID-19

In 1815, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, writing for Harvard President John T. Kirkland, laid out a vision for the graduates of the newly proposed institution that would become Harvard Divinity School:

“We want [a minister], not to transact our business and receive a compensation, but to be our friend, our guide, an inmate in our families …to enter our houses in affliction; and to be able to give us light, admonition, and consolation, in suffering, sickness, and the last hours of life.”

Over 200 years later, HDS alumni carry on that founding mission as chaplains at hospitals and hospices around the country. Two of them, the Rev. Erica Rose Long, MDiv ’16, and Sarah Byrne-Martelli, MDiv ’02, serve at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Harvard Divinity School spoke with them recently about being on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, partnering with doctors and nurses, and providing comfort and support both to Coronavirus patients and those who care for them.

Harvard Divinity School: What’s a day in the life of a hospital chaplain during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Erica Rose Long: It’s incredibly powerful. Last Friday, for instance, I said final prayers for a patient who was dying of COVID. Then I led a spirituality group on the inpatient psychiatric unit about kindness that was just really moving. Later that day, I went to the ICU to meet the family members of a patient that I've been praying for over the last month. They haven’t been able to come in because of our patient visitor policy, but I finally got to meet them and pray with them for their young son who was going to die in a couple of days. In general, I listen to people's stories. I pray with people of all different religious traditions. I lead services for my patients and for staff. It’s all those things in one day and there's even more than that.

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: There’s a shocking intimacy that you have with people no matter what their religious background is. I rarely have Orthodox patients. I do have a lot of Catholic patients. And a lot of people will consider themselves spiritual not religious. That’s one reason I'm a chaplain. I want to be with folks of all different traditions. I mean, you hear everything and see everything. It’s so human and so rich.

HDS: How has the pandemic changed chaplaincy for you? How have you had to innovate?

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: Erica and I have talked about what it means to be present. Chaplains are so used to being creative and providing this less anxious presence amid distress or pain or suffering. With the pandemic, we've really had to rethink what that means.

We had a patient with COVID who was dying. I called his son, who wanted to be part of the prayers. I had met with him before and provided support. I called our priest on the phone, merged the calls, and put it on speaker and the son put it on his speaker. And we had this beautiful shared prayer. The priest did some of it in Spanish. And then the two of us provided counseling and support over the phone.

There's something really intimate about being on the phone with someone in a certain way too. Because it almost reduces everything to just your voice. There's no body language. There's no anything else. You have to listen even more carefully than you would otherwise.

Erica Rose Long: Last Friday I was on site. And first thing in the morning I got paged to go to White 3, which is an area that used to be where people would go before having surgery. Now it's a COVID-19 ICU. I was called there to offer prayers for a patient who was dying, but I can't go in the rooms of patients who are positive for COVID.

The family had chosen not to come but they asked that I say a prayer for the patient. I realized that the nurses in this section, since it's usually the pre-op area, they have these almost like “walkie-talkie” phones. So, I was able to have one nurse go in the room and stand next to the patient with her device on, which allowed me to say end of life Catholic prayers for the patient. A couple months ago, I would never have thought to use the technology that way.

While I was saying the prayers, all the nurses kind of came around me and they were just very quiet. When we were done, some of them asked if they could donate their old iPads to the spiritual care department so we could FaceTime families in to see their dying loved ones. I was just so moved by just the creativity and the innovation. These nurses, who are already doing so much, want to do even more.

HDS: Are you scared of getting sick?

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: I think initially I was concerned. I have a husband and a five-year-old son. But I'm pretty focused on using all the safety precautions and being very intentional. I shower at work. I change my clothes. I go home. I change again, then wash my hands. I disinfect everything. I probably have been exposed at some point, or I probably will be. If it happens, it happens. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Erica Rose Long: I have moments. When I see that there's a really young patient on one of my units who’s on a ventilator, that kind of scares me. I think “Wow. I could get that sick.” But I was more afraid that I would get sick and people would be mad at me for being sick. Like, “When did I not wash my hands? When did I touch my face? What did I do wrong?”

I think I have more acceptance that this is just something that might happen to me and that I'm doing everything I can. I'm washing my hands. I change my clothes. I'm wearing scrubs. I’m wearing the mask. But if I get sick, I get sick.

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: We work in a hospital where people are dying all the time. I work in palliative care so many of my patients are seriously ill. Some are at the end of life. We live in this uncertainty all the time. You do the best you can with what you have.

HDS: It’s part of the job of a hospital chaplain to be at the bedside of someone who is sick or dying. Even so, the demands of a pandemic are another order of magnitude from what you usually face. What are the religious resources you draw on—both in work and life—to deal with such great suffering and loss?

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: There's this term--“bright sadness” or “joyful sorrow”—that we talk about a lot in the Orthodox Church, especially during Holy Week. It’s about acknowledging all the suffering while holding space for hope and joy at the same time. It's really hard right now and I'm just trying to be honest that it's hard, and not pretend that it's okay.

Someone sent me this Mr. Rogers quote. Something like, “If it's mentionable, it's manageable.” So, I'm trying to mention things and be clear, and then to notice beautiful things as well, particularly in nature.

Erica Rose Long: In Unitarian Universalism, we say that we believe in the transformative power of love.  My job does involve a lot of sadness and loss, but I do it because of the love that I see when I hear people talk about how much they love their family members, when I see the team caring for patients, or when a patient tells me their life story. Even when I can only hear it over a phone, I receive so much hope. This person just met me and I'm the one who gets to hold space for them.

-Paul Massari