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Hospital chaplain reflects on job as 'grief catcher' in powerful posts about death

J.S. Park is working to dismantle the traditional reputation of chaplains.
J.S. Park in 2017 presenting a speech during his chaplain residency.
J.S. Park in 2017 presenting a speech during his chaplain residency.Courtesy Daniel Wallace
/ Source: TODAY

During J.S. Park's first clinical shift as a chaplain intern at Tampa General Hospital, he watched a man being resuscitated in the emergency department. The man did not make it, and Park was tasked with answering: What can really be said to a grieving family in the worst moment of their lives?

"All I could do was sit with the family," Park, 40, told TODAY. "They wailed and wailed and through tears told me about his entire life. And though I only listened, this seemed to be enough. Shortly after, I applied for the year long residency."

Tampa General has been Park's "church" ever since.

As a second generation Korean American, Park dreamed of growing up and "being the change" after a childhood rife with abuse, trauma and poverty.

"My family did their best, working hard to survive, but they perpetuated a lot of the abuse and trauma they experienced in their childhood in a war-torn colonized Korea," Park said, adding that his is a common story among second generation AAPI. "My family passed on both the beauty of their heritage and the hardness of their dysfunction."

He was led to youth ministry, but told TODAY he "felt out of place" and yearned to do more impactful community outreach. Park learned the term "chaplain" while doing work in prison ministry.

"I was told that a chaplain is like a mix between a priest and a therapist," Park said, adding that the job description matched his hope of "breaking the cycle" of his childhood trauma and seemed like a perfect fit. "I enter every hospital room as (a) presence and ears with open hands. I get to be, even for a brief moment, who I badly needed."

For the last seven years, Park has been beside families at Tampa General, a Level 1 trauma center, during some of their most vulnerable moments.

"I see gunshot wounds, car accidents, fires, falls, stabbings, strokes, cardiac arrests," Park told TODAY. "Almost every patient that I see was someone who was living their daily routine, and in seconds their life was irreversibly changed by the universe crashing in."

It's not something the hospital chaplain takes lightly.

"I think this awareness has instilled a soft hum of panic in my chest, but it’s also given me a very grounded appreciation for every moment I’m in," Park said.

Through his experiences at the hospital, Park began sharing reflections about grief and healing to his social media accounts. What began as reactions from family and friends has grown to a community of more than 50,000.

"I’m always in awe that anything I write would draw eyes and clicks," Park told TODAY, adding that 99% of the feedback he's gotten has been positive. "I’ve never gotten over that feeling."

In a recent post — which racked up nearly 85,000 likes — Park shared a powerful anecdote about holding three hands in one day: a baby who died, a spouse watching their spouse die and a teen who begged him to pray they would not die.

"Thousands of patients, hundreds of deaths, last words and squeezed hands, heart rates down to single digits, chronic pain and headline tragedies and final confessions—I have heard thousands of stories, and in some way have lived thousands of lifetimes," Park captioned the post reflecting on seven years of chaplaincy. "A chaplain is a grief catcher."

Park told TODAY the term "grief catcher" is one that comes to him every time he enters a room in two very different ways.

 "When a person grieves, very often they’re falling. Falling into a sudden vacuum of loss, falling into hard and overwhelming emotions, falling into a 'new normal,' literally falling on the floor," Park explained. "In many ways, I am trying to catch them. Not to stop their grief, but to be with them on the way down."

He is also there to "catch" the deceased.

"One of the most important things I’ve learned about grief in the hospital is that grieving is not always about letting go of the deceased, but catching their memory," he said, adding that people tend to share stories about their loved ones.

Park continued, "For me it is most healthy when we catch and capture the deceased’s story, even those particular textures of the way they laughed, or walked, or ate, or sang in the bathroom, or picked their teeth, or held their shoulders. I have this sacred access of catching an entire person’s life, brought to life by their family who loved them."

Park told TODAY that chaplains are often mischaracterized as "angels of death" or "old guy with a priest collar waving a Bible". It's a reputation Park actively tries to prove wrong, both in person and online.

"We try to do the part that scalpels and syringes can’t do," Park said. "It could be called spiritual care, or holistic care, or whole-making care, or well-being care. We slide between the numbers and institutional gears."

The Florida-based chaplain explained that many people have not inherited healthy ideas about death, because "it has become something to rush past, shove aside, and whisper about in hushed tone."

It's another barrier Park is working to dismantle.

"One role I have as a chaplain is to create a pause," he explained.

"A family member once told me after their loved one died, 'My world has stopped but the world just keeps going.' So I try to find a way to stop the world, even for a moment, so the bereaved can have a moment before re-entering this hectic rush of living. I don’t judge anything the bereaved does during this pause. Scream, fall over, rock, wail, dance, nap, cuss, even at times hitting a wall — this is their grief. So many are just looking for permission to let loose the river of all they’re holding. If, in any small way, I can give that permission, I will."