To Know or Say No to a Chaplain?

buscagliaYears ago, I was a hospice chaplain.

I remember rejection.

Every new patient that entered into hospice care was assigned a team that included a nurse, social worker, home health aide, and chaplain. Different hospices might have other staff available to a patient. For example, one hospice where I worked had someone that did light housecleaning. (And she was really popular with families!)

With the exception of a nurse, a patient could decline or limit visits from the team. Though biased, I always thought I was the most declined.

Sometimes it would be the case manager nurse who’d tell me the patient didn’t want a chaplain to visit. Sometimes I’d phone to introduce myself and see if there was a good time to swing by to meet the family. “No thanks,” they’d say. Most refusals were polite. A few were less polite. (“We don’t want you around Gramps talking death and hell.” Before I could offer a second opinion, the line—much more so than Gramps—was dead.)

There are many reasons patients and families decline a chaplain’s visit:

  • They had no interest in religion, faith, church, God, the afterlife, or any other holy whatever.
  • They were already involved in a synagogue, parish, mosque, or church, with regular visits from their clergy and members of their faith community.
  • The only reason for a pastor/priest was saying a final prayer near death and/or to comfort the family after the last breath. In other words, they’d welcome the chaplain when the patient was knocking on heaven’s door.
  • They didn’t want a religious professional scheming to change their hearts and minds about their current lousy or lovely beliefs about God, or to remind them of all their real and imagined lifetime of mistakes, regrets, and sins.

Please, bring on the nurse with the drugs that will ease the pain, but keep the chaplain and the happy words or guilty prayers as far away as possible!

What’s a chaplain good for anyway?

Let me share a few things I’ve done, or others did, as a chaplain:

One colleague often sang with patients. He’d sing a patient’s favorite hymn . . . and in tune! According to rumors, he also did a darn fine rendition of “Jingle Bells” and “America the Beautiful.” He also did requests. What a guy!

I once spent hours with a patient’s adult child, listening to that tender and troubled person fret about how giving pain medication to this person’s beloved parent conflicted with the family’s religious views. This fifty-something “child” worried that reducing the awful pain with drugs would also reduce the possibility of “eternity in a better place.”

A chaplain I admired told about visiting an elderly patient who wept because she’d longed to visit her childhood home one last time. The chaplain asked if the patient knew the address. You betcha! The chaplain fussed with her iPhone. Soon, on a small bright screen, the patient saw (by way of Google’s “street view”) how the house had changed and how it had stayed the same.

While a nurse tended to wounds where cancer’s tumors were surfacing like horrific mushrooms, I held the patient’s hand. We chatted about her childhood memories. Eventually, the nurse finished her hard, grim work and—for another day—helped a sweet, dying woman be as comfortable as possible. I merely distracted the patient. But, bonus, I also heard about playing tag in the woods at the family’s cabin and the first time she’d been kissed.

I have served communion and read scripture and heard confessions and (tried) to explain about God and death to elementary-aged kids. And I have done nothing. Nothing other than listening to fears, worries, hopes, and dreams.

As a chaplain, I never asked anyone to fill out a form (though I was glad the social worker helped patients finally acquire veteran’s benefits). As a chaplain, I never asked patients to take medication or stuck a needle into their arm (though I was glad the nurse helped them get pain relief). As a chaplain, I never bathed anyone (though I was glad a home health aide reassured them there was nothing embarrassing with being naked and that being clean would be wonderful).

I’d politely ask to pray with a patient. Most nodded yes. But others replied, “No thanks.” No problem. However, if it felt appropriate, I’d then gently wonder if it were okay to pray for them in my private, daily prayers? I don’t recall anyone ever saying “No” to that question.

I remember patients who prayed for me. After my simple words of blessing and gratitude concluded with an “Amen,” some patients continued praying. How humbling that was! Jews have prayed for me. Muslims have prayed for me. Sikhs have prayed for me.

Chaplains laugh with patients. Cry with patients. They will read to a patient from the Christian Gospels or the Hindu’s Bhagavad Gita. Depending on the patient’s requests, they will never mention God . . . or try to help a patient express their deepest feelings about God.

If you’re reading this and a hospice patient, or someone caring for a loved one in hospice, I hope you get to know the chaplain. Inviting her or him into your life is less about religion and more about a relationship with someone seeking to support you and your family.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image of praying from here.

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  1. I am curious, are there rules or just an understanding of how the chaplain does the job?

    I had an unfortunate experience when my mom was dying and because of it, I would never risk my emotional well being to another hospital chaplain I did not know well.

    In my job, I sometimes lend what support I can offer to families going through the difficult loss of a loved one and I remember every time, how that hospital chaplain made me feel.

    I thank God for chaplains like you and the ones you spoke about so eloquently.

    • There are rules, and each hospice will have its own guidelines. Many chaplains are certified, following a rigorous program. Check out this LINK. When I was a chaplain, I began, but never finished a program leading to certification. However, as with every profession, some people will connect with a particular chaplain and some won’t. I am sorry you had an “unfortunate experience.”

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