Hospice takes on a holistic approach to health care as it revolves around the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of patients and their families. While some of our skilled professionals tend to a patient’s physical and psycho-social needs, others tend to the spirit – this responsibility lies in the hands of the hospice chaplain.
In honor of Pastoral Care Week 2017, and Chaplain Month here at Unity Hospice, we asked several of our chaplains what they do, why they love it, and how it has impacted them throughout their time here.
“On their final sprint of life, most people want to know where God is,” says Steve Buchelt, chaplain at Unity Hospice of Northwest Indiana. “My goal is to find out where a patient is spiritually and then support their faith journey from there.”
Anne Chida, chaplain at Unity Hospice of Greater St. Louis, clarifies the common misconception that many have about chaplaincy—that they push their religious beliefs onto them.
“We never assume we know a patient’s beliefs, because everyone has their own interpretation about their own faith. And that’s what I love about it. Everybody has something to add to our understanding of the Spirit – it’s very enlightening,” shares Anne.
“It’s not our job to convert,” agrees Steve. “It’s not about me as a chaplain, it’s about them as a patient.” Steve graduated from Rush University Medical Center’s chaplaincy program, spending his residency years as a pediatric chaplain at Rush Hospital in Chicago. It was during his residency program that Buchelt connected with Unity Hospice of Chicagoland Chaplain Joe Green, who had completed his residency at Rush University Medical Center back when palliative care was first emerging as its own theory of care.
Joe adds that what makes a great chaplain great is not his or her focus on religion, but about the relationship. “I am there because I want to be there and value the relationship we share,” he emphasizes. “I will only reciprocate what my patients will share with me, and I reassure them that they are in a safe place. Sometimes, I have totally secular relationships. The diversity affords me a marvelous opportunity to minister at any level,” concludes Joe.
Of course, their years of ministering at Unity Hospice have given Joe, Steve, and other chaplains a great deal of impactful experiences, including religious ones, which inevitably come with the job description.
One of Joe’s patients, a professional gambler, had ALS for over five years. While he was raised in a Christian home, he requested to do some bible study with Joe, who started spending several hours every Friday afternoon teaching the bible systematically, verse by verse, according to various topics. The patient started inviting friends over, and it became a group study. “It was a transforming thing to watch,” remembers Joe, who also spent time with the patient outside of bible study—like attending White Sox games.
Anne’s most impactful experience was with a patient who lived in a trailer in the Missouri countryside. “He made his income from picking up cans along the highway, and came from a fractured and estranged family,” she remembers. “But when that man died, every single family member was by the bed, holding him and praying for him.”
Additionally for Anne, hearing what patients describe as they approach active death is one of the most fascinating aspects of being a chaplain. “Some see their deceased loved ones waiting for them; others actually say they see God. It’s a sacred time of life,” says Anne. “I can always feel God’s presence.”
Ken Lawson, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Chaplain & Bereavement Coordinator at Unity Hospice of Western Illinois, says chaplaincy work is an obligation to attend to the spiritual needs of all patients—including non-religious ones. “Even a non-spiritual person may have a question about what happens after death. And in most religions, the afterlife is something that is important.”
Of course, with hospice care come the inevitable challenges for the entire care team. “The ending of relationships is a harsh reality,” says Joe. “You know it’s time and you do what you can to prepare, but it’s still an abrupt end.”
Unity Hospice chaplains also choose to take on the responsibility of comforting their colleagues.
“Because we genuinely care about our patients’ lives and support them emotionally, it takes a toll on us when they pass,” agrees Buchelt. “My biggest concern is keeping my own grief current, and helping my colleagues at Unity Hospice stay current in their own grief.”
Even through the challenges, though, the rewards of the job are immense.
“What I love most about chaplaincy work is helping a family accept death as a normal part of living,” says Ken, “helping them understand from their spiritual point of view that death is not the end— that there is hope afterwards.”
About Unity Hospice
Founded in 1992, Unity Hospice is a family owned and operated hospice and palliative care company committed to providing comprehensive care, support and education to people facing a life-limiting illness, those who care for them and the community. Unity Hospice offers care of the highest quality by licensed and competent staff in accordance with laws & regulations and accepted standards of practice. With the dedication to make their patients’ days comfortable, Unity Hospice provides an interdisciplinary approach to each individual and family, in which they go above and beyond every day to meet their needs. More information can be found on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages.