Written in dedication of every health care worker, care provider, and hospital staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you directly work with patients or you keep shelves stocked, every job and every role is essential.
I often hesitate to share with others that I see ghosts. When I begin to explain this mystic pathway before me, people either respond by flipping out in nervousness and promptly changing the subject or they criticize me for being a heretic to the Christian faith. For many years, I called my ability to see ghosts a curse. I was convinced my ability was neither real nor Divine, that perhaps these hauntings were all in my head, my imagination running wild. But even if it is my imagination, I can paint vivid images of people who have passed — images that are more than just white sheets or shadowy shapes. I tried to hide this part of me that connected to death, but the ghosts never left me.
And I never forgot about them. I don’t choose when I see them nor who I see, but over time, in learning how to grieve, I’ve allowed myself to play with the idea that maybe these visitors are here to help me. Ghosts cross boundaries that are in no way firm or set. They grace both sides of Life and Death with ease and beauty. Seeing ghosts has helped me make sense of the losses I have witnessed in the hospital while working as a chaplain. I feel them with me. It’s like I am watching them leave this realm and move on to whatever is next.
The death of a loved one is an experience that is hard for many. Losing people sucks. It’s sad. During a time in history when we are asked not to gather, not to be together to celebrate Life and Death, many of us who value celebration from a cultural perspective are finding ourselves grieving loss in a way that is unfamiliar.
From a young age, Death was relatively normalized. I was raised to value community care, and in this, I learned a lot about how death is observed and processed. My family, extended family, friends at school, and church family — we all took care of one another. We celebrated Life in majestic and beautiful ways, and we often did the same with Death, grieving but grieving together and with one another, and always with food. I have many memories of grieving with rice at the center of the table and pancit overflowing and of aunties and mamis telling us to eat more, so we’d eat until we were full of food and full of the kind of Life that is only brought on by being in community. Learning from my loved ones has only strengthened how I understand my grief: communal care is essential and central to my understanding of the Divine presence.
I look back to every one of my on-call shifts that I had throughout this summer — all but one or two had at least one patient death. Watching someone’s life be exhaled from outside the room because you cannot be in there, holding the place of the family because they could not be there — I was suddenly the whole community wrapped up in one person. No one should be dying alone, and it has been a beautiful gift to be with people as they pass. I hold this opportunity to be present as incredibly sacred, and while I wouldn’t have it any other way, there have been a lot of ghosts to hold.
As I continue to reflect on what it has meant for me to work in a hospital throughout COVID, I find myself haunted also by many aspects of my chaplaincy work. On top of a death and infection toll that continues to rise because of a lack of care for others, a selfishness that leaves those of us there with the dying so wholly enraged and sad, there are the more personal bits: wondering if I can come to work the next day, week, or month when a patient death breaks my soul wide open; learning to be patient with myself as I talk myself down from panic attacks in the middle of the grocery store; explaining policies over the phone that family can’t come in, and if they can come in, explaining that they have to wait outside the door — far away from their loved one; watching people die in the company of people who put their lives on the line to try to heal this person; and the well-being of my fellow health care workers as they radically provide care for patients — vaccinated and unvaccinated — doing everything they can to ensure that the patients suffer as little as possible.
Then there are patient deaths that will continue to haunt me in the days ahead. Even in writing this, I am working through a patient death that has made me question my capability to show up to work and continue to enter rooms with the emotional capacity to hold another patient’s suffering. The day after this traumatic loss, I found myself telling myself that I was ready. That I could hop back in. I went to work on Monday and said, “Put me in, Coach. Let’s do this.” My first patient visit was to accompany a family through the death of their loved one. I thought: “Great, this is what my body knows how to do. This is how I know how to hold people.” I got up to the room, introduced myself to the nurse, and then I froze, the events from the day before barreling toward me like a semi-truck with no intention to stop. I couldn’t go in. Everything that I knew how to do was suddenly missing, and it felt like I was in the middle of a dust cloud, unable to see anything around me.
The pain and grief held in these moments is indescribable, even as I try to explain it here. After these traumatic events — I feel my soul live outside my body. I feel like a ghost floating through this realm, unsure if people can see how hard a time I am having. And often, to avoid burdening others with the pain I see every day, I do my best to leave it at the hospital. I remain physically recognizable to others, but there’s something in me that is already gone. Something inside me is begging for a chaplain for the chaplain because on nights where loss comes one after the other, I have to find a new box to put each one into just to get to the next one. My heart is full to the brim of boxes. The ungrieved and under-grieved things leave me forgetting how to exist and act in public.
In times like these, I draw meaning from the tradition of Día de los Muertos. The tradition has become central to my relationship with Life and Death. Its colors and celebration of life. Its honor of ancestors and loved ones, welcoming them back to us with open arms. It puts a beauty to death that is lost in Westernized grief practices. Learning to grieve losses, big and small, is essential to our existence. Letting unprocessed grief build up does an immense disservice to our existence and flourishing in life. In fact, when I started embracing loss, death, and grief more openly, I found myself feeling a sense of freedom that I did not know before. I was suddenly more available to my own grief and the grief of others. I learned to be gracious with the me whom I have left behind. I stop and wait for her, allowing for my separated existence to catch up. It’s okay to sit with the ghosts and grieve, and I have found that these ghosts keep pretty good company.
At our house, my roommate and I have left our ofrenda up year-round in a specific room for the ghosts — the altar holds offerings that thank them for their life on earth and reminds them that they are not alone or forgotten after their death. This ofrenda is mostly filled with photos of family members and friends, with candles, an abalone shell and guava leaf bundle, and other items intentionally placed before them on the altar. But there is also a jar for people who neither of us have any familial relationship to, and this jar is the heart of why I never want to lose my ghosts. This jar holds the names of my patients who have died since I started working as a hospital chaplain. Practicing a tradition that acknowledges the return of souls to their loved ones when placed upon an ofrenda is the only way I have made sense of death. I welcome them back to this side of life, guided by strings of marigolds made by hand.
The fact of the matter is: Death is a partner to Life. And with Death for me comes the ghosts that keep me company. I often imagine walking in front of these ghosts, dropping marigold petals to lead them back to the comfort of someone on earth who has space in their heart to remember them and to love them, and if they don’t: I don’t mind if they stay with me.