Chaplains: The Heart of Hospice

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By Francine Rose, AseraCare Hospice Volunteer

A patient facing death needs to talk, but doesn’t want to burden his family. Family members are sad, worried, and exhausted.  Thankfully, AseraCare hospice patients and their families can rely on our caring, professionally trained chaplains to provide a caring presence during a terminal illness.

Without our chaplains, we wouldn’t be “caring hosts.” Without our chaplains, we wouldn’t be a hospice. Nancy Mintz, staff nurse, identifies the chaplain as the most important contributor to the hospice care experience: “Patients experience death as the most spiritual time of their lives, as a journey, even if they’re not religious. Chaplains help patients who are fearful of dying, comforting and calming them. They help families mend broken relationships and help patients with practical concerns.” Without a chaplain’s care, Nancy says, “it just wouldn’t be hospice.”

Meryl Thomas, social worker, identifies the chaplain as the “central support person who is willing to be at the bedside, who is about being there for the patient and the family.”

Home patient nurse Kit White agrees that, “Without chaplains, you would lose the whole spiritual element of hospice. It would be like taking sugar out of the cake recipe—that’s the whole point.”

In gratitude for all they do, we would like to honor Brian Swan, Sister Jean Rene, and Deb Byrum for their caring “ministry of presence” during this National Chaplain Month.

Brian Swan:  We’ll Miss You

Brian Swan, a dedicated AseraCare chaplain for five years, felt a deep sense of calling to ministry, but wasn’t certain, at first, exactly how he was being called to serve.  As a child, his dad was in the funeral home business, so he grew up seeing death as a natural part of life. When he was 9 years old, his grandmother was dying of cancer, and he often read the Bible to her at her bedside.

As a chaplain and Assemblies of God minister, Brian now works to build connections with family members of all backgrounds and faith. With a husband who’s been married for 50 years, feeding and caring for his wife, Brian “comes beside him. We talk about the weather and football, until we can talk about dying.” It’s all about “being able to walk with him while he struggles through letting go.”

“I try to meet people where they’re at, let my patients lead the visit. It’s about listening, being open, not judging,” Brian said. He feels that his presence is “a physical reminder of the spiritual nature of death.” For believers, a chaplain’s presence is a reminder that God is with them. For nonbelievers, knowing that they’re not alone and someone cares is a comfort.  “Through my presence, I try to tell the patient, I acknowledge you. I know what’s going on with you, I agree that it’s hard, but let me walk with you.”

Brian sees his role as serving the family as much as the patient. Talking about what’s happening to the patient, helping families make the environment as peaceful as possible for a patient, walking families through what’s going to happen, helping families handle practical things, are all part of the chaplain’s role.

Brian acknowledges that he grieves with families and patients, but he feels “thankful for being able to serve in this role, to treat the whole person.” “The events of death are spiritual events, not just biological or medical events. It’s a change of relationship.”

Sadly for his current patients, Brian is leaving us for the Johnstown office. Many staff members will sorely miss him, too.

Nurse Nancy Mintz noted that “Brian was always available, even if he wasn’t on-call. He’d be willing to come in and interrupt his day. He was helpful when I needed extra support for a patient or family, and had the uncanny ability to show up at just the right time. I’d ask him, ‘How did you know to come?’ and he’d just say he felt the need to come.” Nancy could also count on Brian when she was trying to support a dying patient:  “lots of times I’d be frantic and he’d come sit at the bedside so I could tend to other patients without worrying about leaving my dying patient alone.” Nancy also appreciated the way Brian supported staff at the time of a patient death.

Meryl Thomas, a social worker who spent four years on Brian’s team, brought attention to his “very quiet, laid-back, unobtrusive style” that helped patients feel secure and to open up, as well as Brian’s utter “dependability” and willingness to be a team player.

Kit White, a nurse who tends to home patients, said that “Brian was fabulous. Always compassionate; a calming presence. Always 110% effort. If I needed extra help, he was Johnny-on-the-spot. Nothing was ever too much; his response was always, ‘I’ll be right there.’”

Sister Jean Rene

In her eighth year of caring for patients and families at AseraCare, Sister Jean Rene sees her primary role as providing a “ministry of presence, being present to the patient and listening to them.” She feels that helping take away a patient’s anxiety, by being totally available to the patient, is one of the most important ways she and other chaplains help a dying patient.  Jean Rene supports her patients’ families and works closely to help them deal with their loved one’s illness. She “gets a lot out of this ministry. Patients and their families trust us and share a lot.”

Jean Rene feels that chaplains need to be “faith-filled people who have faced their own death.” As a chaplain, “you have to be in touch with your own emotions, your feelings about death and dying, so you can listen to others.”  To be a chaplain, a faith-based person has to “be open to listening to people of all backgrounds. That’s why, when I had a Hindu patient, I made sure to research Hindu prayers to share with him. They were beautiful prayers, and it was a beautiful and meaningful experience for both of us.”

“To me, as a chaplain,” she explains, “doing is not our kind of ministry… it’s just being with a patient.”

Deb Byrum

Deb’s first close encounter with death was when a good friend from college was diagnosed with an aggressive spinal tumor. After visiting her dying friend in a hospice facility, Deb, a Lutheran minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, was eventually drawn to hospice.

Deb tries to bring a calming, supportive presence to her patients. For those who are cognizant, she listens to their life stories and empathizes with their experiences. For patients whose minds are confused, she provides warm attention while trying to enter their worlds. Deb will talk to the family, observe the patient, and look for a way to enter the patient’s world. One woman would smile broadly and sometimes hum if Deb sang old songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” so “that was a way to connect with her.”

As a chaplain, Deb wants to “help people find peace.” She sees herself as “bringing a broader and deeper dimension to the experience of dying. It’s a time for someone to just be with you, being with the whole person and paying attention. It’s not about telling the person what to do. It’s about being open to the person wherever they are.”

Often, she says, “patients will say to me, ‘I know I’m dying,’ and they will accept their death. But their child is saying, ‘Don’t say hospice to my mom.’ Patients are more accepting; families struggle. My role is to help both the patient and the family.”

People who are seriously ill are often “frustrated that they can’t do more to help their families anymore, and just the fact that they want to care for others when they are so sick has taught me something. I owe a lot to my patients.”

One thing that surprised Deb about being a chaplain was “what a blessing” it is. “A lot of patients accept dying as natural, not a traumatic or dramatic experience…Patients helped me learn to let go in life.”

AseraCare is grateful to our professional, caring, committed chaplains. We’re grateful for the gift of your presence to our patients and their families, for the way you love your work, and especially for the way you continue to learn from our hospice patients and their families. We wouldn’t be a “caring host” hospice without you. To learn more about AseraCare Hospice, call 1-800-570-5975 or visit aseracare.com.