What is a Hospice Chaplain?

Published April 12th, 2017

The spirit, like the mind, body, and emotions, is a natural dimension of every person. In the hospice and palliative care setting, the spirit and spirituality are not defined within the context of a specific religion and its doctrines, but instead as the awareness of one’s relationship with the world, humanity, and one’s overall sense of meaning and purpose.

While other skilled care professionals tend to a patient’s physical and psychosocial needs, the care of the spirit rests with a compassionate and highly-skilled member of the hospice team — the hospice chaplain.

What is A Hospice Chaplain And What Does a Hospice Chaplain Do?

The hospice chaplain, as an integral member of the hospice team, is a medical professional who plans, assesses, and cares for a patient’s spiritual needs throughout the end-of-life process.

The role of a hospice chaplain is crucial, as many people turn toward spirituality for comfort at the end of life, and the expert spiritual care and counsel that a chaplain provides is paramount in helping patients — and the caregivers, family, and friends who love them — find peace.

By better understanding the role of the hospice chaplain, their goals for care, and how they provide that care, we can better understand the incredible level of spiritual support that every hospice patient is provided on the the end-of-life journey.

"Hospice chaplains are a bastion of comfort and spiritual strength for patients, families, and caregivers on the end-of-life journey." Tweet

How Hospice Chaplains Help Patients

First and foremost, the chaplain is dedicated to providing the patient with care and spiritual counsel that meets their needs and is in accordance with that patient’s wishes. If a patient does not wish to engage with a hospice chaplain or any form of spiritual care, they do not have to. It is entirely optional and the patient can change their mind at any time.

Chaplains do not seek to convert patients or bring them into the fold of a specific religion, but to instead meet the patient where they are on their spiritual journey and help the patient discover renewed meaning and spiritual peace. Regardless of religion, creed, or culture, a chaplain’s purpose is to provide patients with compassionate spiritual support and counsel.

Chaplains help patients spiritually prepare for the end of life.

Often and understandably, as a terminally-ill patient approaches the end-of-life, powerful and complex emotions — such as anger, depression, guilt — can begin to take root. Patients can also begin questioning the meaning of life, their purpose, and whether or not their life was of any value.

The hospice chaplain’s role is to help guide patients to a place of spiritual health by helping them see the value of their life and its positive impact. While the chaplain may not be able to provide all of the answers a patient may seek, expressing these emotions is healthy and having these conversations can help pave the path toward healing.

Chaplains help ensure that no patient dies alone.

A cornerstone of the hospice philosophy of care is that no one should be alone at the end of life. No matter the time of day or night, the hospice team, including the hospice chaplain, is dedicated to ensuring that no patient dies alone and that each patient is surrounded by comforting, compassionate friends at the end of life.

Chaplains improve a patient’s sense of overall comfort and well-being.

A healthy spiritual outlook is intimately connected to a patient’s overall sense of well-being. Multiple studies show that patients who define themselves as having a more balanced and positive sense of spirituality report higher levels of positivity, lower levels of pain, and a generally higher level of comfort at the end of life.

By providing compassionate spiritual support, the hospice chaplain helps patients achieve not only greater comfort spiritually, but physically, emotionally, and mentally as well.

Chaplains encourage helpful religious coping practices.

Chaplains, as spiritual experts, understand the intimate relationships between religion, spirituality, and culture, and how those aspects of a patient’s life shapes their relationship with the end-of-life journey.

From this vast array of spiritual knowledge, chaplains can help patients find the rituals, prayers, and other spiritual coping practices that help instill a sense of peace and offer the greatest comfort.

How Hospice Chaplains Help Families

While the chaplain, as a member of the hospice care team, is centered on providing the patient with the care they need — and that is in accordance with the patient’s wishes for their end-of-life care — families are also provided with emotional and spiritual support.

Chaplains respond to the spiritual distress of families.

A patient’s family is heavily impacted by the news of their loved one’s terminal diagnosis as well as the day-to-day process of their loved one’s end-of-life journey.

Naturally, the end-of-life process takes a spiritual toll on a patient’s family, who may find themselves confused, angered, guilt-ridden, or questioning the meaning of life itself.

In this capacity, chaplains serve as a compassionate listener and offer spiritual counsel for families, allowing them to express their fears, voice their concerns, and begin to work through these difficult emotions.

Chaplains help reinforce the importance of spiritual coping during the dying process.

After the terminal diagnosis of a patient, the patient’s family may begin to question long-held spiritual beliefs and, over time, the family begins to abandon their spirituality and their spiritual health wanes.

Chaplains play a critical role in bolstering a family’s spiritual health by helping families understand the importance their spirituality, the strength it imparts, and the very real impact proper spiritual health has on mental and physical well-being.

During the chaplain’s time with the family, which can last up to 13 months after a patient’s death, he or she plays a critical role in helping the family understand their emotions, how they relate to spiritual concerns, and how to move onward toward a place of healing.

How Hospice Chaplains Help Caregivers

Family caregivers — family members of the terminally-ill patient who provide care on a daily basis — are often among those struck hardest by the death of a patient. Hospice chaplains, in this capacity, help provide caregivers with the emotional and spiritual care that can often go neglected following the painful process of a loved one’s death.

Chaplains help provide caregivers with bereavement care after a patient’s death.

After months or even years of providing daily care and comfort for their loved one, the continuous act of caregiving becomes an ingrained part of life.

Once their terminally-ill loved one dies, it’s common for caregivers to experience a significant emotional and spiritual drain, sometimes leading to severe depression.

To help caregivers through this period, hospice chaplains act as a bastion of support and comfort, helping caregivers reclaim their emotional and spiritual identities, providing spiritual counsel, and helping caregivers understand and process the emotions they may be experiencing after their loved one’s death.

Chaplains help caregivers reconcile spiritual grievances and respond to spiritual distress.

Family caregivers, in their daily provision of care and comfort, bear witness to their loved one’s slow deterioration at the hands of a terminal illness.

Over time, caregivers who watch their loved one slowly decline can begin to feel anger and feelings of powerlessness — why did their loved one have to suffer so? Why is their life ending this way?

While a hospice chaplain may not be able to answer every question, the chaplain’s compassionate listening and understanding presence provides caregivers with an unwavering source of support and spiritual invigoration during one of life’s darkest periods.

Chaplains help encourage a positive and constructive flow of communication.

Between the patient, the caregivers, the family, and the hospice care team, there is a lot of communication that occurs and a great deal of information must be processed on a daily basis.

In this capacity, chaplains help maintain clear and positive channels of communication by helping caregivers better understand the wishes of the patient, the directives of the care team, and the patient’s overall plan of care.

By helping the caregiver better understand the landscape of their loved one’s care needs, and where their loved one is on the end-of-life journey, hospice chaplains help caregivers stay informed, but more importantly, calm and spiritually equipped to face any challenges ahead.

How Hospice Chaplains Work With And Help The Hospice Team

In addition to the support and care hospice chaplains provide patients, caregivers, and families, they also assist the hospice care team in a myriad of ways. From acting as a spiritual support for the team, to making informed improvements to the care plan, hospice chaplains play a crucial role in helping the care team provide the utmost in patient-centered care.

Chaplains provide spiritual support for the hospice team.

Every day, the medical professionals that comprise the hospice care team are faced with situations and tasks that demand a high level of spiritual resilience. However, just like all of us, even hospice professionals need spiritual reinvigoration.

Chaplains, just as they do with patients, understand the spiritual needs of their fellow care team members, and act as a bastion of unwavering spiritual support and counsel for those who care for the terminally ill every day.

Chaplains help the hospice team better understand a patient’s spiritual and cultural beliefs.

A patient’s spiritual and cultural beliefs can have a large impact on the type of care they wish to receive. Certain medications, care practices, and specific forms of therapeutic care may be rejected by the patient should it conflict with their religious, cultural, or spiritual beliefs.

Hospice chaplains help the hospice care team understand why and how certain aspects of the care plan may need to be adjusted to ensure that the care a patient receives is in alignment with that patient’s preferences.

Chaplains help the hospice team understand the spiritual and emotional needs of the family.

Hospice chaplains become a trusted source of information and advice within the family unit of a terminally-ill patient.

Over time, not only does the chaplain build trust and a positive rapport with the family, but also obtains unique insight concerning what the family may be worried about concerning their loved one’s care and what their biggest emotional and spiritual needs may be.

Armed with this information, the hospice chaplain then informs the team as to how to best adjust the care the family is receiving to ensure the support the family receives is addressing their current needs.

Spiritual Care For The Whole Person

Hospice chaplains devote their time and effort toward understanding the world’s numerous cultures and religions, and toward the needs of the human spirit as a whole.

From this study and devotion, hospice chaplains have the unique ability to restore a terminally-ill patient’s sense of purpose and meaning, reinvigorate the hearts of families and caregivers, and be a bastion of spiritual support to those providing the highest level of end-of-life care.

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References

  1. Scott, Linda Olson, Johnathon M. Law, Daniel P. Brodeur, Christopher A. Salerno, Anzette Thomas, and Susan C. McMillan. "Relationship with God, Loneliness, Anger and Symptom Distress in Patients with Cancer Who are Near the End of Life." Journal of hospice and palliative nursing : JHPN : the official journal of the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.
  2. Otto, Rev. Randall E., Ph.D. "Care for the Dying." Care for the Dying. Dallas Baptist University, Spring 2001. Web. 03 Jan. 2017.
  3. Wittenberg-Lyles, Elain, Ph.D., Debra Parker Oliver, M.S.W., Ph.D., George Demiris, Ph.D., Paula Baldwin, B.A., and Kelly Regehr, B.A. "Communication Dynamics in Hospice Teams: Understanding the Role of the Chaplain in Interdisciplinary Team Collaboration." Journal of Palliative Medicine, 10 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.

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