COVID Cultural Changes: Expressing Aloha While While Wearing a Mask

In this COVID-19 pandemic the Pacific Health Ministry chaplains remain diligent in providing spiritual and emotional care to patients, families, staff and physicians at 11 healthcare facilities on three islands. Chaplains are an essential part of the inter-professional team of caregivers. We listen, pray, and offer words of hope, gratitude and encouragement from a variety of traditions. Chaplains are a non-anxious presence and are calm and compassionate listeners in times that are overwhelming and uncertain. We have also become creative, using technology, tele-chaplaincy (including phones, iPads) to connect those who cannot be physically present with each other. 

“Ministry of presence” is how Chaplains have understood and described themselves over many decades. “Being present” is who we are. Coming alongside, being there and accompanying the sick and dying is what we do. Often, we give a gentle touch, a smile, sometimes a hug. Now amid of the COVID-19 pandemic physical distancing, wearing masks and other PPE (personal protective equipment) have changed chaplaincy.

To offer support and Aloha for patients, families and staff while wearing masks has been imperative to us. One example was when one of our Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residents, Jennifer, wrote these words of reassurance from the chaplains to the medical staff:

“I see you behind the mask

“Although it can feel as though your face is all but hidden under a mask and shield, know that we still see you. We see your effort, your smile, your tiredness, your hope for others...all through your eyes shining, darkening, and gleaming.

It is said that “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Thank you for the many ways you bring your heart and soul and your humanity to this time and place.

                                                                        We see you and appreciate you.”

Expressing Aloha while wearing a mask is not only a hospital experience but has now reached everyone in Hawai’i.  All of us are required to wear masks when we leave our homes.  It takes practice to communicate with masks.  I realized that last Saturday: I volunteered with VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) at the Laie Bundles of Love, a Drive -Through Food Distribution for Mother’s Day.  There were over 100 volunteers who were making sure that the many hundreds of families who came in their cars would get food. All of us volunteers wanted to share much Aloha and Mother’s Day cheer. Yet, I was wondering how I could get that across since I was wearing a hat, dark sunglasses and a mask. All of you who know me, know that I really like to share my smile. As I was going through the rows of waiting cars, my ministry skills dropped …. I rely so much on facial communication. There was not much left – I felt, all I had were hands to waive… I still smiled behind my mask, hoping it would come through a bit. It is said that 55% of communication is visual. Masks block faces and prevent our ability to express and see facial expressions and emotions, catch visual cues, and communicate.

With sun and pandemic protection, I was extremely covered. So were many others at the event. The channel of communication, i.e. giving and reading the facial clues were now severely limited. If not covered by dark glasses, we can use the information provided by eyes, perhaps add eyebrows, and whole body language. It seems we are re-negotiating the world of emotional communication. This may take a while. I am confident though that with all these adaptions, our emotional life will continue to thrive. We can practice how to express Aloha while wearing a mask. And hopefully we can say to one another soon: “I see you behind the mask.”

Rev. Anke Flohr,

Executive Director Pacific Health Ministry

© 2016 Sunrise Foundation Hawaii