Helping patients and families deal with death is a heavy privilege, one that hospice chaplains carry with dignity and grace. Beyond attending to medical and practical needs, hospice care includes a vital spiritual component for patients who desire it as part of their care plan. Mind, body, and soul are attended to during this tender journey.

For Pastoral Care/Spiritual Care Week (October 22-28, 2023), Heart to Heart Hospice recognizes its chaplains (also called spiritual care coordinators) who go above and beyond ministering to families before, during, and after a patient’s death. 

During regular visits, a hospice chaplain’s role is to simply provide presence, such as watching a favorite show together, listening to family stories, or reading favorite spiritual passages together. They can help families find peace with reconciliation, counseling, religious rituals and ceremonies. Chaplains also can assist with planning or performing funerals, plus provide grief and bereavement care after the patient’s death.

Hospice Chaplain Rev. Sandy McClain, a pastor and ordained bishop, put it simply: “Our agenda is to love them through this situation. We make a difference at a time in their lives that they never forget.” 

In fact, Rev. McClain was so moved by the need in his community for hospice care that he helped start Heart ‘n Soul Hospice to specifically serve underserved communities. The company began in Nashville but is quickly expanding to other cities. Heart ‘n Soul offers the full spectrum of hospice care, from nursing care to social workers and chaplains.

Rev. McClain said their top three responsibilities include: 1) Clearing up misconceptions about hospice; it’s not giving up but offering improved quality of life. 2) Relieving some of the burdens of caregivers by providing additional resources and coordinated visits from nurses, aides, volunteers, chaplains, and social workers. 3) Educating them about hospice benefits and coverage, including their ability to choose which hospice provider serves their family.

“We quickly become part of the family,” said Rev. McClain, noting they are often asked to provide eulogies at funerals and attend family celebrations. They also continue to check in on families via phone calls, letters, or visits well after a patient’s death.

Hospice Spiritual Care in Action

At Heart to Heart Hospice, chaplains attend to the individual needs of each patient. Some may be actively involved in their spiritual life, while others may want to reconnect with their religious background. Chaplains are often trained to be culturally sensitive and respectful of diverse spiritual and religious backgrounds. Spiritual care for hospice patients is multifaceted and includes:

  • Spiritual Guidance and Support: Respecting and addressing individual beliefs and traditions, chaplains provide a listening ear and engage in meaningful conversations about faith, meaning, and the afterlife, if desired.
  • Emotional Support: Chaplains help patients and families navigate the emotional challenges that often arise during end-of-life care. They offer a safe and compassionate space for individuals to express their fears, grief, and concerns. They offer companionship, reassurance, and spiritual support, even when verbal communication becomes difficult.
  • Counseling: Chaplains may provide counseling services, either individually or in group settings, to help patients and families cope with the complex emotions associated with terminal illness and death. This may include grief counseling, helping patients find peace, and facilitating difficult conversations.
  • Rituals and Ceremonies: Depending on the patient’s and family’s wishes, hospice chaplains can facilitate religious or spiritual rituals and ceremonies, such as prayers, blessings, sacraments, or meditation sessions, to provide comfort and closure.
  • Advance Care Planning: Along with other hospice staff, chaplains may assist patients and families in discussing and documenting their end-of-life wishes, such as advance directives, living wills, and do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders, to ensure that medical care aligns with their spiritual and ethical beliefs.
  • Interdisciplinary Collaboration: To provide holistic care, spiritual care coordinators work closely with the hospice care team to address spiritual, mental, and emotional concerns alongside medical needs. They also can involve personal clergy from any denomination.
  • Education and Resources: Chaplains can educate patients and families about grief, loss, and the dying process. They may also connect them with community resources and support groups to help them navigate the challenges they face.

Pastoral Care Week

The theme for Pastoral Care Week 2023 is Chaplaincy and Mental Health: It’s Healthy to Get Help, recognizing spirituality and mental health are closely related. An individual’s spiritual worldview has a direct impact on their mental well-being. At Heart to Heart Hospice, our spiritual care coordinators/chaplains work closely with the entire care team, including social workers, nurses, and other professionals who focus on the whole health of the patient.

Chaplains communicate the spiritual and emotional health of a patient and family within the hospice care team to ensure the correct resources are utilized. Some of the mental and spiritual health issues highlighted during this year’s Pastoral Care Week include:

  • Promoting self-care and whole health
  • Family and couples counseling or grief groups
  • Multicultural spiritual counseling
  • End of Life

“We help families with the grieving process, as they see someone who cares for their brother, sister, mother, father,” said Rev. McClain. “We show them, not through a sermon but on a one-on-one basis, the unconditional love of God.”