Joseph F. Duggan

Context: Level 1 trauma center in an U.S. American urban medical center located in a neighborhood beset by unemployment, poverty, and violence.

Role: On-Call Hospital Chaplain

Time 7:10pm

I was paged to the Emergency Room (ER) to join a physician, as she was about to inform parents and family that their 17-year-old African American son and brother had died because of multiple gunshot wounds.  It was an otherwise normal day for Willy.  He had gone to school.  He had returned from school.  He had a snack as he talked with his mom at home about his day.  His mom kissed him on the forehead and then Willy went out to play with some friends.  On the street Willy was shot multiple times for no apparent reason.

Upon my arrival in the ER I observed more than 25 extended family members gathered in a very small waiting room.  I met the doctor and she briefly informed me of the victim’s status.  We then approached the family room, waiting for the doctor to deliver the tragic news.  Consistent with hospital protocol for delivery of news to the families of gunshot victims we were accompanied by several hospital security officers. It was the first this doctor, a young medical resident, would be telling a family that their son had died from gunshots.

We entered the family room.  The doctor asked the family what they knew.  The doctor’s approach was common protocol, but on this night the family’s expectancy of bad news out stripped their patience with this slow, methodical, and rational approach.  As the doctor continued, the mother just interrupted and asked if her son was going to be OK.  The doctor hesitated, paused, and then said, “No, I am sorry.  He died from multiple gunshot wounds.  We did everything we could, but he died.”  The mother screamed and immediately went into shock falling to the floor.  The rest of the room erupted in various expressions of emotional breakdown and outbursts.  Some threw wastepaper baskets in their anger.

The doctor’s response was one of immediate control.  She said, “Your behavior is unacceptable.  There are other patients here and you must be quieter.”  The family responded with greater degrees of anger and frustration.  The doctor looked at me and said, “Well, do something. You are the chaplain!” I smiled and said, “There is nothing to be done.  Their grief is normal.  They are in shock.  They are not violent. What is the problem?”  The doctor said, “They are too noisy.  They are throwing things.”  I said, “Noise does not equate with violence.  Have they hit you?”

Once again the doctor attempted to silence the grief.  I moved closer to the doctor and suggested she leave and I would call her if we needed her when the family was calmer.  She refused my suggestion.  The doctor attempted one more time to control the situation.  She failed again and this time the family totally ignored her.  On this time I gently directed her out of the room and said it was time for her to go.

Ten minutes had gone by since I entered the room with the doctor to inform the family of the news and still I had not said a word to the family.  I was silent apart from a few words to calm the doctor.  When the doctor left I closed the family room door and then sat outside in a position of prayer.  The waiting room door had a window.  The family could see out.  I could see in.  I sat in their line of vision but I purposefully did not make eye contact with them.  I bowed my head in a position of prayer, but knew always what was going on in the room.  The family was wailing and yelling out their grief.  Some were on cell phones telling more family.  Security personnel were behind me but now they were also completely out of the family’s sight.

Ten minutes later a member of the family came out to use the rest room.  Just before he returned to the family room I greeted him.  I said, “I am the chaplain-on-call.  You may recall I was with your family as the doctor told you the news of your brother’s death.”  So far the brother just looked at me curiously but was silent.  I said, “When your family is ready I would like their permission to visit with them.  Until then I will sit here to make certain that nobody disturbs you.”  I selected my words very carefully.  I wanted to convey to the brother and to the family that they were in charge of their grief and the time it took for them to hear and accept the message.  The brother said, “Yes, I will tell them.”  He then returned to the family room.  I returned to my prayer position outside the family room.

Ten minutes later the door opened and I was invited in to address the family.  I entered and closed the door.  The family members were in silence all huddled next to each other.  I knelt down in front of the mom and then spoke very quietly and said “I cannot imagine your pain right now.  Please accept my heartfelt sympathy for your loss.  This room is yours for as long as you need it.  Take your time.  Perhaps, you have seen me.  I have been sitting outside this room for the last 30 minutes making sure that your space is respected.”

The family was visibly calmer and breathed deeply.  I said, “I have something to share with you.  As painful as your son’s loss has been to you, this news I am about to share with you will be very difficult too.  You will not be able to see your son’s body tonight.  All victims of homicide fall under the care of the state.  I know it is awful for you.  It is a double loss for you.  It is though intended to protect your son for any evidence that might be available on his body.”  Some family members wept.  Some just looked very sad.  All were calm.  Some asked for clarification.  I repeated my sympathy and said I would return to sit outside the room.  Not a word was spoken to me.

Ten minutes later every member of the family—over twenty in total—walked out of the room in total silence, single file, past me.  Several stopped by me to give me a hug and to thank me.  The doctor and chief ER nurse were stunned that the family had left so quietly.  I was not stunned at all.  The way I ministered to that family was my signature trauma chaplaincy ministry approach in all circumstances.

I saw it as my role to create a container for people to do their own grief work on their own terms and in their time.  I responded to every call knowing that the family’s higher power was already present before I got to the room.  I was convinced that the family had all they needed to encounter their grief.  My role was not to add words or narrate the trauma but just to be present.  The tone of my presence brought calm.  I did not attempt to control the family.  I gave control back to the family or, better said, I merely facilitated space for them to claim their own control.

The decolonization of any process is about who has power and who does not, is a reconsideration of who should and should not have power.  When a young, white, privileged doctor tells an African American family who has lost its third son to violence to get a grip on their grief, there is an imbalance of power.  There is nothing a chaplain could say to heal the chasm that exists between this doctor and family.

Silence trumps all colonial language.  All language is colonial when grief immersed in the context of poverty and violence is silenced.  Silence can privilege the voice of the powerless.  Through silence the wails of grief become audible and visible without the interruption of control and dominance.  Silence blesses grief in ways that words cannot touch.  Wisdom speaks through silence in words that cannot be uttered.  This chaplain (and any chaplain) knows not the language and custom of the traumatized family—silence is therefore the better response.

Chaplains are trained to help people process their pain, loss, and grief.  The chaplain needs to be an astute judge to listen deeply for the right time to speak and the time to be silent.  Chaplains typically tend toward speech instead of silence. Chaplains are powerful people who work with people in places of extreme vulnerability and loss of power.  I advocate for a postcolonial chaplaincy that creates space where power violently taken away through trauma may in time reemerge through silence.  Words cannot graft the return of power.  Privileged chaplains and doctors through words only postpone the decolonizing healing of silence.

The level 1 urban trauma center provocatively embodies the multi-religious, ethnic, and multi-racial tensions in our global postcolonial cities.  In the extraordinary moments immediately following trauma suddenly thrust upon families living in cities, when privilege encounters poverty, when peace encounters violence, and when white people encounter persons of color—there through unexpected and even undesired relationships is revealed the otherwise masked colonial challenges of the postcolonial city.  Scholars of postcolonial cities tend to dance around these challenges.  The postcolonial cities literature describes but keeps a comfortable distance for gaze without engagement.  We wrestle with ideas and eloquently offer visions, but we avoid intimate encounters with the other.

The doctor’s desire for order of the family room was as much a projection of her need for the gunshot victim’s family to model her family’s way of handling grief as it was about the way to restore order to the ER.  To order is to silence alternative expressions that are likely to feel chaotic even risky and violent outside of our limited visions of order.  To order is to violate another’s expression, a different way of ordering.  We fear alternative versions of order and sift these through a lens that produces in us discomfort and loss of control.  Our instincts have been colonized so that our first impulse is to control.  To accept without judgment the felt chaos of outbursts is a step toward the postcolonial city encounter that engages radical differences on terms other than our own.

Postcolonial Networks seeks to organize a global Postcolonial Cities Roundtable to foster and share intimate, engaged encounters with radically different people that defy colonial order and live into the possibility of postcolonial chaos.  We seek multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial street dancers, activists, community organizers, artists, singers, poets and all who dwell on urban streets and seek relationship with others beyond the distant gaze.  We also welcome postcolonial scholars of religions and theories to be in dialogue with those who like the chaplaincy call I responded to in a Level 1 trauma center cannot avoid encounters that cross our divides of dominance and control.  Together we will envision postcolonial cities through intimate encounters that leave behind our misplaced scholarly preoccupations.

Professor Simi Malhotra, who is Professor of Postcolonial Studies in New Dehli, India at Jamia Millia Islamia, and I seek to work with you to organize and launch the Postcolonial Cities Roundtable in early 2013.  The volume produced will be submitted for peer review to Palgrave Macmillian’s series, Postcolonialism and Religions.  The series is co-edited by Postcolonial Networks board members, Jayakiran Sebastian and Joseph Duggan. Would you like to be part of the roundtable, a collaborative and relational model out of which will come publishable papers? Email us at

334_1041087221349_3950_nJoseph F. Duggan, PhD, is founder of Postcolonial Networks.