Healthcare Chaplains Supporting Grieving Families in the ER

Deaths in the emergency room are common, and unfortunately, they’re often sudden and unexpected, leaving the family shocked and overwhelmed with grief. The time emergency room physicians can spend with a patient’s family is minimal, and this is when a healthcare chaplain can step in to offer support and comfort in the darkest moments of a family’s life.

I’ve experienced what it’s like to be on both sides of these trying situations. I’ll never forget the first time I watched a patient die working as an intern in a large emergency room and trauma center. Along with the overwhelming feelings I felt myself, we had the difficult task of notifying the patient’s family sitting in the emergency room expecting us to save his life. That walk to the emergency room was one of the longest of my life.

I also know what it’s like to be a family member being hustled out of the room by ER doctors as my husband coded. I sunk into an emergency room chair feeling so lost and alone until that chaplain walked up to me, took me to a comfortable and private area, and sat there and prayed with me and talked with me. Several weeks later, it would be this same chaplain who sat with me in the hospital’s tiny chapter as I processed the news that my husband was gone.

Supporting grieving families in the emergency room is no easy task. Chaplains have the task of walking into some of the darkest situations to help bring a tiny bit of light to people who are going through their lowest moments. Every situation is different, which means the type of support you offer will need to be customized to that family’s needs. And while there’s no simple guidebook to providing spiritual and emotional support to the grieving, there are some helpful tips healthcare chaplains should remember as they work to bring the love of God to the lives of the hurting.

Acknowledge That You Can’t Imagine What They’re Going Through

Even if you’ve gone through a similar loss yourself or you’ve worked with hundreds of families going through grief, don’t pretend that you understand what a grieving family is going through. Acknowledge to them that you cannot imagine how they feel. It shows your honesty about how devastating and unique their loss is, while telling them that you know how they feel will only build walls that prevent you from ministering to them.

Learn mroe about Grief Counselors.

Ask If There’s Anything They Need

Many families won’t ask you for anything, so take the initiative to ask if there’s anything they need. They may not have eaten for hours, or they may need something to drink. Remember, Jesus took time to feed the crowds that followed him before he ministered to them, so don’t forget the importance of making sure their basic needs are met.

Some families may need someone who can call other family members, and students may need a medical letter for their school. If you can’t take care of something they need, find out who can. Showing them that you’re there to help builds trust and rapport.

Sometimes it’s the simplest thing that stands out to a grieving family member. I remember when I was grieving the loss of my husband, the chaplain took the time to get my son some food and a drink, and still today I think of that act of kindness and how much it meant to me in such a desperate, trying moment.

Offer to Say a Prayer with The Family if They’re Comfortable With That

When you’re working with grieving families in the ER, you’ll likely have no idea what faith they may be unless you get an appropriate moment to ask. Since this is the case, ask the family if they’d like you to have prayer with them. Most families will be happy and grateful to have you pray with them, finding comfort in a time of prayer with someone who cares, no matter their faith. However, you may encounter families that say no, and that’s ok. Even if a family says no to a time of prayer, continue reaching out to them and helping wherever you can. This is a moment when you have the chance to show God’s unconditional love.

Help Connect Them with Those Who Can Support Them in the Future

As you minister to grieving families in the emergency room, you probably won’t have a lot of time with them, and this is just the beginning of their grieving. Help connect these families with those who can offer them support in the future. This can include helping them find a funeral home for their loved one, letting them know about available financial assistance for burials in your area, or connecting them with a local pastor who can provide additional spiritual support.

The emergency room can be one of the most difficult places to lose a loved one, and the fast-paced environment also makes it a tough place to minister to families. Remember, while you’ll probably only have a short time to minister to these families, even brief moments with grieving families can leave a lasting impact. Sometimes the simplest act or the shortest prayer offered by a healthcare chaplain can be something that brings the light of God into the lives of a family.

Joy Burgess

Joy Burgess

Joy Burgess is currently full-time freelance writer who has a BA degree in Missions and Pastoral Ministries. Along with working in a hospital emergency room and in a nursing home, Joy also spent time ministering and teaching in the country of Ghana and later teaching in a private Christian Day School. She's a widow and special needs mother, but most importantly, a woman of faith.
Joy Burgess