Family stories

What it’s like to be a hospice chaplain

By Susannah Anson, Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care Assistant

The Chaplaincy team offers spiritual and pastoral support to everyone, aiming to respond to the needs of each individual as they face difficult life experiences. Susannah tells us a bit about her role, her journey to hospice chaplaincy and how to talk about death and dying with your loved ones: 

We hope to be sensitive and compassionate listeners who will walk beside someone as they journey, providing a space for people to be open about what they are experiencing.

When we refer to spirituality, we are talking about how an individual finds their meaning and purpose. Some might find meaning in something, or someone, greater than themselves, some might connect with nature or find their meaning in their families. Religion or structured faith is one part of spirituality that we can support at the hospice. We have a network of chaplains of all different faiths to call on, who will help as needed.

Learning to listen

In this role, you need to be empathetic, able to listen well and to be present with someone. People often ask the ‘why’ questions – ‘why me?’ and ‘why is this happening?’ We don’t have all the answers, but what we can do is acknowledge and perhaps unpick the pain a little. We can talk about what’s happening for the individual in that moment and what they are feeling. What we definitely won’t do is try to impose a viewpoint on someone. We are not only there for end-of-life situations. Just hearing bad news might create a space where an individual or their family would welcome some support.

We introduce ourselves to everyone on the IPU. I like to say ‘hi’ and see if a patient or their family would like a chat. If patients are receiving Hospice at Home care, they can ring the hospice and speak to us directly, or the community team can refer someone to us.

Why we need to talk about death and dying

These days, death seems to be a taboo subject, barely spoken about. We need to talk about it for lots of reasons. The death of a loved one can be more difficult for everyone when legal arrangements – such as a will or power of attorney – are not in place. Do we know what our loved ones’ wishes would be in terms of cremation or burial? Do we know where they would like to be laid to rest? What do they feel about medical intervention? These are difficult questions to tackle at first, but being open about them may create a freedom and a peace when the time comes.

How to be there for someone at the end of their life

Advising on how to open conversations about dying is tricky because it is so personal and so individual.

It is important to note that you don’t have to know what to say. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for somebody is just be there. If they start talking about how they are feeling, try to listen attentively and with compassion.

Perhaps acknowledge the emotion by saying something like ‘I can see that you’re in great pain and that this is overwhelming for you.’

We don’t have all the answers and it is okay to say you don’t know, whilst sitting with them in the uncertainty.

Telling someone that you’re scared may also help them to admit that they are scared.  I think the most important thing to remember is to be real, honest and compassionate.

Why I became a hospice chaplain

I was ordained this summer having previously been a licenced Lay Reader in the Church of England for eight years.

I was a teacher for 20 years. My journey to working in hospice care began with my own father’s death. After that, I trained as a counsellor. I joined the YMCA as a chaplain, then I became a hospital chaplain where I worked through COVID, which was very challenging. Hospices have always been close to my heart, so I always hoped that I would end up working here. It was a real joy to be appointed. I work with Cruse Bereavement Support as a supervisor and have spent some time with Carers Support too.

For me, it’s a phenomenal privilege to be able to walk alongside people in their most profoundly moving and personal moments. It can be difficult: you get to really know and love people as you journey with them.

I have a strong Christian faith and I do what I do in the strength of that faith and my God, but you do need to learn strategies to cope with the emotion so that you can be there for the next person.