I texted my CPE supervisor yesterday to ask if minds and bodies remember vicarious traumas even after a year.

This was the only explanation I had for why yesterday was such a sad, weepy day after I’d thoroughly enjoyed a beautiful sabbath nature hike – replete with crunching pine needles and lilting gushing waterfalls; and a heart warming church service with kind words of affirmation from our fill in preacher on his last Sunday with us.

“OH YES,” she texted back. “Unfortunately that is normal.”

It helped to know I wasn’t going crazy.

She asked if I needed to talk. I was grateful for the offer but I was with a friend- I strategically planned little to no alone time on purpose for March 22.

March 22, 2014 was about as terrible a day a pastoral caregiver can have. It began at 9AM in the Pediatric ICU family room. The place no one wants to go.

They were doing brain flow studies on a 3 year old and needed some support.

After 3 hours with them I went downstairs to take a nap and have lunch. On my way I was paged to oncology to be with a family as they prepared to say goodbye to their 11 year old.

I was interrupted in my care of them with a page to the ER where I spent 4 hours with a family of a 13 yr old car accident victim.

Interrupted again, I headed up to oncology where the 11 year old had just passed. As I sat with the family with few words and feeble attempts at comfort, the ER charge nurse called to say they were pronouncing the 13 year old. They needed me down there right away.

I spent the next 2 hours trying to comfort and console, and helping the child life specialists make memory boxes for the family.

The day went on and I got a few more calls through the night. A child whose mother’s boyfriend had hit her; a 4 year old whose grandfather had taken him for a spin in their new antique car which was hit at just the wrong place, creating a nightmare of a birthday for the little guy.

I took three showers when I got home- intermittently between cleaning my room, my bathroom and the kitchen.

Neither chemicals nor soap nor water nor tears were able to wash the blood from my mind.

I spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday sitting on my bed in a puddle of tears, my journal sat next to me, but there were no words to fill it; my Bible on the side table, but there was nothing I wanted to hear from it. The exhausting task of taking on so much pain, all at once and holding onto it until it was my turn to release it, was over and here began the equally exhausting task of release.

The next Monday I was urged to go home as soon as I got to the hospital- but I knew time alone was not what I needed. I sat at my desk and soaked in the presence of my peers and the staff chaplains; kind of working on my final project, but mostly just being around people.

Tuesday I left early and had my sister meet me at the pie hole for the most delicious cherry pie I’ve ever had.

The crust was like a sugar cookie, with cherry filling in every bite.

I enjoyed the time with my sister, my pie and my coffee- Jack Gilbert’s words from
“A Brief for the Defense” providing a strange sort of eerie comfort, and a sense of responsibility to continue on.

To continue to provide good pastoral care in the midst of horrible tragedy.

To continue to proclaim hope in the face of despair.

To respond again to God’s invitation to minister alongside God in a world that needs to know of God’s love.

To keep letting God shape me into a vessel – a temporary holding place- for people, emotions, and existential questions. An alabaster box gently cradling both the tension of despair and the hope of seeing things made right, someday.

Today I put that 24 hr call shift behind me, again.

Determined, again, to be filled with God’s love, then emptied in service, ready to hold more holy moments intersecting sorrow and joy.



  1. Joseph Griffin

    Thank you so much for this. As a pastor for over 25 years, and a CPE equipped care provider, this reminded me of several “traumaversaries” and left me deeply grateful for those like yourself, who are there when needed most. Bless you SaraInRealLife…

  2. aporterfield2013

    Oh, Sara–yes, yes, yes. I honor your wisdom in caring for yourself as you care for others as they face unspeakable traumas. The grace and presence you offer them is evident in your writing. Thanks for your courage in sharing this.

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