|Chaplains help hurricane survivors deal with grief, loss|
Nov. 9, 2005
|Courtesy of the Rev. Hugh Maddry
The Rev. Hugh Maddry tours the VA center in Gulfport, Miss.
A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Hurricane Katrina has left thousands of people with “spiritual gaps”
that will be hard to fill, says the Rev. Hugh Maddry, director of the
National Chaplain Center for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some of the people on the frontlines working to fill those gaps are
chaplains for the 176 Veterans Affairs centers across the United States.
“The grief is enormous,” Maddry says. Bodies are still being found,
and families are facing the possibility they may never be able to
identify loved ones.
“It is hard to bring closure when there is no body,” he says. “There
will be no burial, no grave … there is just nothing. Those spiritual
gaps — those huge gaps in one’s journey — are very difficult to bridge.”
Maddry, a United Methodist pastor and former hospital chaplain,
directs the chaplaincy program for the Veterans Affairs centers. Based
in Hampton, Va., he has a corps of 1,000 chaplains. He has made two
trips to the Gulf Coast and deployed several chaplains to the area to
provide pastoral care for those traumatized by the storms.
On his latest trip in late October, he worked with the Air National
Guard on morgue detail duty. Searchers found bodies that had been
undiscovered for more than a month because of brush and debris.
“You think you are trained to deal with grief and death, but you
cannot even imagine what it is like until you get into it,” Maddry says.
“I don’t care how many skills a chaplain has clinically, there are
times when you wonder if those skills are even present in your life —
you don’t feel them.”
One particular incident stands out in his mind. An 8-year-old boy
came into the morgue with his uncle looking for his parents. Their
bodies were later found in another location.
“It is just gut wrenching, heart wrenching to see that,” the chaplain
says. “I don’t think you ever prepare yourself for a morgue detail. Day
in and day out, hour in and hour out of watching people try to identify
bodies … it is just very, very difficult.”
The National Chaplain Center was called on by the Department of Health
and Human Services to develop a spiritual protocol in the aftermath of
the storms. According to the protocol, a chaplain is to be present in
the morgue when a body arrives. Chaplains are also on hand in the family
assistance center as a “spiritual presence.”
|Courtesy of the Rev. Hugh Maddry
Hurricane Katrina left behind miles of destruction that will take years of recovery.
“When people come to identify bodies, we want to ensure that there is
dignity and respect and the presence of a spiritual person,” Maddry
says. Every attempt is made to provide the bereaved with a spiritual
care professional from his or her faith tradition. Pastoral support is
provided in an ecumenical fashion if someone from that faith tradition
can’t be found, he explains.
“I guess the hardest part for me was when people would say,
‘Chaplain, Why?’ It is a question I struggle with. I know in the midst
of all this God is present, but helping these people feel God’s presence
in the midst of this tragic disaster is a very complicated thing to
Maddry continues to provide pastoral support to many of the chaplains
in New Orleans and Mississippi who were also victims of the hurricanes.
“In a real sense it has been the wounded caring for the wounded,” he
The VA hospital in New Orleans was flooded, and the one in Gulfport,
Miss., was flattened, Maddry says. Both facilities are closed and the
staff sent to other hospitals or outpatient clinics.
Veterans Affairs set up seven mobile clinics in Louisiana and
Mississippi to care for the many veterans and others along the Gulf
Coast who were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Two medical
shelters were set up in Waco and Marlin, Texas. The Texas shelters have
now been merged into one in Waco. The shelter treats 40 to 50 people a
day, he says. Three chaplains are assigned to it.
Since 9/11, Maddry says 300 VA hospital chaplains have been trained
and certified in emergency preparedness. When Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita hit the Gulf Coast, he got the call that chaplains were needed.
The storms equalized everyone along the Gulf Coast; they are all
“have-nots,” he says. Million-dollar homes and modest dwellings alike
were wiped out.
“I think we are looking at months and months and months of people
grieving,” he says. “Some people have not even been able to talk about
issues until now, and some don’t know yet the fate of their loved ones —
they just don’t know where they are.”
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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