Can a chaplain help you remember how to breathe?

Intermountain chaplains do a lot more than offer blessings. They’re trained, empathetic listeners who can help you reconnect to yourself during difficult times, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.

There are many different sighs. There’s the relieved sigh after you negotiate four lanes of traffic to make your exit. The satisfied sigh when you survey the results of a day working in the yard. The contented sigh of finishing a big meal. Then there’s the sigh that Intermountain chaplain Ronda Weaver says is the sign you need to talk. It’s the weary sigh, a slow inhale and sharp exhale, like you’re trying to shift a heavy pack before you keep trudging up a steep trail.

“Everyone carries a burden,” says Ronda. “We tend to hold on to the bad and let go of the good. The more we tamp down bad feelings in our hearts, the less room we have for good.” When feelings go unprocessed, it can lead to compassion fatigue and eventually burnout. Care providers are especially vulnerable. Caring for patients, children, aging parents, or a sick loved one requires a lot of compassion, but also exposes the caregiver to a lot of difficult experiences.

Anyone who is experiencing fatigue, anger, self-doubt, or sadness may benefit from talking to an Intermountain chaplain. “Chaplaincy isn’t about sugarcoating. It’s about exploring feelings. There’s healing in expression,” says chaplain John Bush.

“So many times we can work out our own issues if we just have a listening ear,” says Ronda. Chaplains go through years of training to learn how to listen, how to not insert themselves into a person’s story, and how to create a safe, non-judgmental space where any and all feelings can be expressed. Chaplains are skilled at building dialogue, picking up on non-verbal cues, and asking questions to help people explore and express what they’re feeling. 

Unlike most therapists, chaplains don’t shy away from talking about spirituality. “There’s a quote by Rachel Remen, who’s a medical doctor. I’m paraphrasing, but it goes, ‘What do you do when your skills are no longer sufficient? When we come to the end of our mastery, can we be comfortable with mystery?’” says David Pascoe, semi-retired chaplain and former pastoral coordinator at Primary Children’s Hospital. That space of mystery that sits outside of our ability to control, influence, or even fully understand is where spirituality lies. It’s the place where we find our sense of meaning and purpose in the world. Sometimes this space is understood through religion, but not always.

“We never bring anything into the room that isn’t already there,” says David. Chaplains aren’t members of the clergy and won’t bring in theology or scripture unless the person they’re talking to brings it up first. While they may have their own religious beliefs, they’re not there to defend God or evangelize. Instead, they’re there to validate what someone’s feeling and help clarify their thoughts, whatever they believe.

David sees an engagement with this mysterious space as universal and fundamental. “What makes us human is our constant search for meaning. We are always questing, always searching, and are never satisfied for long,” he says. When our sense of order and purpose is disrupted, either by an accident, a death, the birth of a child, or a pandemic, it disrupts something fundamental inside of us.

A chaplain’s goal is to reconnect people with what makes them feel like themselves. “We’re looking for the things that are already inside you. Can you grab on to something inside you, a point of light, and can we tease that out for you to hold on to?” says David. “Our work is about helping people remember.”

Often, chaplains only have an hour or so with the people they talk to. “I think, because of the nature of the relationship, chaplains are seen as a safe place to vent and open up,” John says. “Unlike maybe someone’s pastor or their significant other, there’s no history and no judgment. We offer a singular space where they can let go.”

Sometimes John will ask people how they feel after they talk to him. People tend to say they feel freer, relieved they got things off their chest. That they didn’t know they had so much on their minds.

A sigh, an exhale of breath, can articulate or speak truth without words. It has no form or shape or substance, but it can remove the weight we may be carrying.

Chaplains are available for support Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. by calling 801-357-8781. After hours calls will be returned by the next business day. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Behavioral Health Navigation Service at 833-442-2211 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.