Strength for the journey: Spiritual care in life’s final passage (Part 2 of 2)

[Editor’s Note: During National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, we honor our chaplains and their work supporting the spiritual care needs of hospice clients and their loved ones. Their work promotes connection, depth, meaning and peace. We are indebted to them for their strength, loving kindness and creation of this content. This is the second and final part in a series.]


By Colby Phillips, Joan O’Gorman and Bronwyn Becker

Caring with Each Other

Always, spiritual caregivers work as team members, caring with their colleagues by attending to the most basic of interpersonal questions:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you value?
  • What would you like us to know so we may care for you better?

In so doing, they may help highlight for team members those aspects of a clients’ personhood or their needs and values that are important to an overall care plan.

Spiritual caregivers are also sensitive to their role in the caring that patients and families do for each other. If relationships are disrupted, they may help explore stories of separation and seek avenues of reconnection. Or they may help nurture understanding so family members are more able to turn toward each other rather than away. If family members cannot often be present to someone living in a skilled-nursing facility, or to someone living with dementia, spiritual caregivers reach out regularly by phone to strengthen bonds. Here too the role is to care with.

As part of the broader spiritual community, hospice spiritual caregivers are well positioned to help clients reach out or reconnect to fellow practitioners of, for example, a faith tradition, yoga studio, birdwatching club or chorus—whichever communities or practices have supported or may support a person’s spiritual well-being. In this role, spiritual caregivers may coordinate with local faith leaders to provide sacraments or connect clients to their faith community’s prayer chain or Bible study. They may help a family member connect with a support group, or they may help families shape rituals and memorial services that honor both a person’s life and the community that supported them.

There is in this caregiving, and in all of hospice, a vital sense of participation, collaboration, comity and fellow-feeling, a belief that we are all in this together, that we are all doing the best we can and that fellowship is necessary for health and wholeness.

‘A Great Chain of Caring’

In the end, the work of spiritual care is interpretive and symbolic, a bearer of many meanings. Chaplains mediate between the language of medical jargon and the deeply felt, untamed world of human emotion and spiritual experience. This is possible because everything is, in the end, a network of deeply embedded signs, manifesting and concealing all kinds of meanings that caregivers and healers must try to decipher in order to help. And it is just as true that caregivers are also living beings, unique constellations of body and soul, living in and through our own experiences, carrying within ourselves our own stories.

Spiritual care stands for the resilience of life in the valley of the shadow of death. It is a conscious response to the complex reality of suffering, an answer to the helplessness, chaos and frustration of hearing, “There’s nothing more we can do.” In the place of this abyss, spiritual care raises a beacon that rallies goodness, creativity and compassion in the midst of death and dying. There is, in fact, something more we can do. It is possible to fully acknowledge loss while opening a door that does not lead to despair: we can each take up our part in a great chain of caring. Every day this work is done is one which the suffering and afflicted may receive comfort, brokenness may be mended, lessons may be taught and learned, and signs of peace are scattered everywhere.

Colby Phillips, Joan O’Gorman and Bronwyn Becker are members of the Spiritual Care team at UVM Health Network Home Health & Hospice. They may be reached at 802-658-1900. Read part 1 of this series here.