Saturday, April 10, 2010

After Easter, Comforting the Afflicted...

According to an article in the NYTimes, Dover Air Force Base is undergoing an ominous building boom. Base officials are expanding the mortuary facilities as they expect both a surge of causalities and changes the way the military "repatriates" remains. In the past, family members were not encouraged to be on the tarmac at Dover to receive the remains of their loved ones. The Government would not pay for their travel or accommodation. But ever since the ban of photographing repatriation ceremonies was limited, the government has softened these policies. Now, the military pays for family members to be at Dover, and many are. According to the article, about 75% of families are now present to receive the deceased (and about 55% of them allow media coverage).

Because so many families are now coming to the base, officials have embarked on an ambitious building campaign to provide facilities to support their grief:
In January, Dover opened the Center for the Families of the Fallen, a $1.6 million, 6,000-square-foot space of soft lighting and earth-toned furniture where parents, spouses, children, siblings and other relatives assemble before they are taken to the flight line. On May 1, there is to be a groundbreaking for a new $4.5 million hotel for families who need to spend the night. The same day, ground will also be broken on what Dover officials are calling a meditation center, a nondenominational space with an adjacent garden where relatives can pray or be alone. (source)

Much of this building is being support by donations, not tax dollars. President Obama, for instance, personally donated $250,000 of his Nobel Prize money to the project. They also received help from the Fisher House Foundation.

Many times the article points out that nice gardens and chapel spaces and comfortable lobbies don't seem to make much difference to the feelings of loss. And yet, my experience is that these gestures of care are not lost on the bereaved, either. From my chaplaincy days I remember the research about how the healthy adaption to grief is facilitated by good, immediate care. In other words, there is a very big role for caregivers and friends is helping someone cope with a loss, and environment you do this work in is important.

Back at Yale-New Haven Hospital, we had two rooms specifically set aside for the dead and the bereaved. One was near the Emergency Room, and was set-aside because a busy emergency ward is the furthest thing from peace and privacy. The second was in the pediatrics area of the hospital. It was a quiet, windowless room with soft light, comfortable chairs, and lots of tissue boxes. It was a place where parents who had lost a child could simply be with their child.

Unfortunately, our culture has lost much of its knowledge of how to grieve well. We have professionalized the formerly domestic sphere of death. Thus, special rooms in hospitals and special buildings on military bases have become necessary. As Easter people, we Christians have a particular ministry to those who have experienced death. I think of Simon and the women who cared for Jesus' body. Holy work.


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