Preparing for the Worst: A Chaplain’s Perspective

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Mountaineer and emergency services Chaplain Katja Hurt shares with us how to approach a crisis.
Katjarina Hurt Katjarina Hurt
Emergency Chaplain & Super Volunteer
March 31, 2020
Preparing for the Worst: A Chaplain’s Perspective

On August 14, 2018, I received the phone call. A climber had died, and my mountaineering friend had just gotten the news. He needed assistance with what to do next. In seven years as an emergency services chaplain, I’ve lost count of how many death notifications I’ve given, and I was the right person for my friend to call. Only, when I realized that the climber he was talking about was Stephen Kornbluth, my best friend and “mountain husband,” I felt my world shatter into a million pieces. None of my experience had prepared me for this moment.

In the midst of my grief, I called on my chaplain training and managed to guide our community through the next steps and provide compassionate care to Stephen’s girlfriend, the two survivors who were with him when he died, and eventually, myself. Surviving a sudden loss is a long journey and there are still many difficult days. I credit my ability to keep moving forward to the years of excellent training in critical incident stress management I have received. Now, more than ever, I advocate for everyone to learn to care for themselves and each other emotionally and psychologically.

In the year-and-a-half since Stephen’s death, numerous people have asked for advice and training to better prepare for these kinds of tragedies. While no one should have to experience a fatality, near-miss, or other significant event of loss, you can incorporate things into your daily routine to help you prepare for the worst. By developing your resilience and ability to care for others in a crisis, you will be better prepared to help lessen the impacts of acute stress and shorten the recovery process.

Practice Resilience

Being resilient means that you are able to “bounce back” from a traumatic event, and research shows that being mentally prepared, developing good practices, and taking care of yourself will help you recover more rapidly from a stressful event. Resilience is a skill that anyone can develop and improve, and there is even evidence that people can develop psychological resistance (i.e. an immunity) to traumatic stress (see Five Factors Resilient People Possess).

To practice resilience, start by keeping your body at peak performance. This means eating well, getting enough sleep, and staying physically active. Build and maintain social connections with family, friends, and the community – these people will provide support when you need it most. Look internally to nurture your inner source of energy and sense of purpose, and work to develop a clear, focused mind by learning new things, practicing problem-solving, or meditating. Resilience is also improved by training, practice, and mental preparation for an event. Imagining, or better yet practicing, a successful response to a worst-case scenario will help you better respond and recover.

Promote Recovery

There are numerous models and theories on how to support someone through a crisis and trying to cover all of them can be overwhelming (for anyone interested in delving deeper, I recommend training in Psychological First Aid and Assisting Individuals in Crisis). To promote recovery, follow these six principles of caring for yourself or someone else when a crisis occurs:

  1. Connect with the person (or if you are the person in crisis, seek connection for yourself). This can be as simple as a greeting and exchanging names. After Stephen died, I made sure that all of those impacted were never alone for the first several days. When people would ask me what I needed, I would ask for a hug as this is one of the simplest expressions of human connection.
  2. Keep the situation from getting worse. Get to a safe location and provide any life-saving interventions (stop bleeding, keep them warm, etc.). The survivors on the climb with Stephen made the difficult decision to self-evacuate and leave his body behind. I applaud them for doing so. Emotional distress will be made worse by continued exposure and physical distress.
  3. Listen to their story (or if you are in crisis, try to tell someone your story). Talking to someone who actively listens to you can help a lot. If the details are too painful to recount or might traumatize the listener, you can focus on reactions and the experience rather than descriptions. Talking to a trained mental health provider or chaplain helps when information needs to be kept confidential. As a chaplain, I regularly call other chaplains to talk through difficult events. It can be emotionally draining, but talking helps you process the experience and get it out of your head.
  4. Address immediate and short-term needs such as food, shelter, clothing, health, and hope (yes, hope can be as critical for survival as food and shelter). People in crisis commonly neglect their own needs. Provide meals or rides to appointments or assist with household chores to reduce this burden and promote recovery.
  5. Help determine the next steps, connect with resources, and make referrals as needed. Short-term impacts on sleep and appetite are normal. However, if a person cannot function or is struggling with long term distress (depression, trouble sleeping, withdrawing/isolating, intrusive or suicidal thoughts), help them access medical care or a mental health professional as soon as possible.
  6. If possible and appropriate, follow-up or check-in with them within a few days.

Being Present Matters

Over the years, I have seen how remarkable the act of sitting with someone and letting them tell their story can be. In chaplaincy, we often use the ministry of presence, which is simply being there to show someone that they are not alone. Often times, connecting and listening to a story is more important than knowing the right thing to say. Sometimes people just need to know that their feelings are normal, and that despite this traumatic experience they will recover. If you are ever faced with a traumatic loss or are with someone in crisis, remember that social connections and interpersonal support are the most important elements in building resilience and recovering from a crisis.

Five Factors Resilient People Possess

(adapted from Psychological Body Armor by Dr. George Everly, 2018)

  • Active Optimism: choosing to believe that things will turn out well and that you have the ability to make them turn out well.
  • Decisiveness: being able to make decisions, especially difficult ones.
  • A Clear Moral Compass: knowing what it means to be honest and to act with integrity and being able to put your beliefs into action.
  • Tenacity: being able to keep going, even to the point of failure, and then being able to define that failure as a lesson or a stepping stone.
  • Interpersonal Support: connecting with others and feeling like part of a family, social group, or team.

Main Photo courtesy of Katja Hurt. 

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.