Sunday, November 08, 2009

No Care for the Caregiver

This morning on TV, I saw U.S. Army Chaplain, Michael Spikes, who is based at Fort Hood, TX, give an interview about the challenges of being a military chaplain during a crisis.

He explained that "counseling the wounded" is about more than physical concerns. In a crisis or emergency, the chaplain provides an opportunity for people to talk about their feelings so spiritual healing can begin. The chaplain also encourages a person to seek out support from wherever it exists for the person. Chaplains assure people that it is okay to ask spiritual questions, such as "Why did God allow this to happen?"

All chaplains (military, prison, university, hospital and others) provide counseling. It is referred to as pastoral counseling.

During a crisis, everyone looks to the chaplain to say just the right words of comfort, to make them feel better, to lighten the load.

In an interview with Diane Sawyer, former Muslim chaplain at Fort Hood, Major Khalid Shabazz, said that there is no care for the care giver. "We're supposed to be the strong ones," he said.

What happens when the chaplain struggles to be strong though?

For me, being a chaplain is the most emotionally difficult job I have ever had. I have seen and heard things that have shaken me to my core. Trust me, I'm no light weight. I worked in the prison many years before I retired from my job as a substance abuse counselor and then returned as the Muslim chaplain. And I spent years on the streets in my jahiliyah. But I had a professional crisis not too long ago, right after the Eid al-Fitr.

One of the Muslim sisters at our prison committed suicide. She hung herself. Unlike the other time, this time it was for real - she died.

She was a very young inmate, and a recent "shahadah." I knew her well, from when she first entered our institution. I did her substance abuse evaluation for classification, and she ended up in one of my substance abuse treatment groups when I worked full time as a counselor. You can imagine how thrilled I was when she made a decision to accept Islam! She looked so sweet in her hijab, Alhamdulillah.

But she was a tortured soul. And she had mental health issues.

She left us on a weekend, and I had a chaplain's conference to go to during the week. I was originally going to take the whole week off, but then changed my plans to return to work that following Friday to lead my community in a Janaza prayer for the young sister.

During the week leading up to Friday, I was grieving. I cried and cried. I also talked to my close friends about it.

When Friday came, I thought I would be okay, that I could be strong ... for the inmates.

I prepared a little something to read because we invited the entire inmate community to the Chapel. I was nervous, but felt I was being strong ...

Until the end.

When I started to say the duas, I fell apart. I choked up. The tears flowed. I could barely continue.

But I hung in there. I wanted to set an example. To let the inmates know that it was okay to openly grieve.

"You cannot mourn in jail," wrote Marta Green, D.Min., a Mental Health Specialist in Montefiore/Riker's Island Prison. "You have to be macho: any sign of weakness and you will be beaten, robbed, or raped ... The energy blocked from mourning goes to violence instead ... The jails are violent because they contain anxious, frightened men who have been deprived of the numbing power of drugs that so many of them are used to using as a means of not feeling. As a result, many are left with only violence to help them balance their inner worlds. If they had the safety to mourn, they might have a chance to learn other means of coping, but the jail culture does not allow for this."

I like to think that, Insha Allah, I was able to show the women at our institution that it is safe to openly mourn.

The chaplain sometimes leads by example. I made a decision that I didn't have to be strong that day. For this caregiver, this decision was a type of self-care.

Every chaplain should have someone that he or she can go to for comfort. I am blessed to have close friends I can talk to when I need to. I also take advantage of the great chaplain colleagues I have at the prison.

Chaplains who fail to do this can be at high risk for "compassion fatigue" which is similar to burnout. It's not a happy place to be for any professional chaplain. More importantly, it prevents the chaplain from being successful in helping those in her care who need her.

"We don't pretend to know the answers," Chaplain Spikes said this morning. "Chaplains help people to journey through the process."

It is my dua that Chaplain Spikes and all of the chaplains and other caregivers at the military base at Fort Hood, TX, will remember to take care of themselves so they don't become wounded healers.



Saaleha said...

assalaamu alaikum Sis

You know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Love and hugs to you. May Allah give you strength and bless you with the ability to continue to make the difference in the lives of those around you


mezba said...

Can't even imagine what the muslims in the US army are going through now by mA due to people like you there are those who make a difference!

Take care! :-)