On many occasions, family members or primary caregivers of newly admitted hospice patients would ask me during an initial phone call or visit: “what are you and what exactly do you do in a hospice agency?” I would politely reply to them that “I am a chaplain and I am part of the hospice team.” Initial visits to patients and their family members are always interesting because many often assume that chaplains, as religious leaders, would be there to convert patients and family members to the chaplain’s religion. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A hospice chaplain conducts assessment, plans, and cares for the patient’s spiritual needs throughout the end-of-life process. Chaplains are trained religious professionals who are endorsed by their religious denominations to work in a particular ministry such as hospice care. Generally, chaplains possess a master’s degree in divinity or a related field such as religion. They may have attended specialized training after their graduate program such as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), while others may have finished doctorates such as the Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Many hospice chaplains are also ordained and experienced clergymen in their denominations.
Spirituality and religion can be critical coping factors for persons who are experiencing debilitating or terminal illnesses, and the chaplain is the right professional to assist the patients and their families in using the power of faith in order to cope with life’s challenges in the face of terminal illness. Chaplains provide a ministry of presence, provide counseling, responds to families’ spiritual distress, perform rites and rituals, reinforce spiritual coping while at the same time honoring and respecting the belief system of the patients and their families.
At HOPE Palliative Care and Hospice, the chaplains’ role does not end with the patients’ passing. Our chaplains conduct follow-up bereavement and grief counseling for the family members as needed after the patients have passed away and are available in person or by phone to conduct pastoral assistance.