“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Pema Chodron
Chaplains usually belong to a team (department) called spiritual and religious care. We are an integral part of the healthcare team, providing spiritual care to patients, families, and staff of all faith backgrounds 24/7, throughout the hospital. The role of the chaplain is to relate to patients, family, staff or other partners-in-care, as a whole person (seeking to reach the individual from a holistic perspective), with a particular focus on the spiritual or religious needs. Spiritual care affirms the inherent dignity and value of all persons, and respects different spiritual perspectives and practices-which may, or may not be rooted in a religious tradition. A wildly misunderstood point is that we only care for those who have a particular faith which is simply not true. We provide to care to all even those who express that they are an atheist or agnostic or pagan.
Spiritual care professionals (or chaplains) are first and foremost healthcare providers. We are part of the healthcare team and are no different from doctors, nurses, social workers or any other allied health profession involved with the care of the patient. So the next natural question people ask is what do you do? What do you say or give a patient?
Some of the "things" chaplains do, and I will provide some points as to what we do or what we can offer for the care of the patient, family or staff. We help people to rediscover meaning and significance in times of illness, crisis, and loss. We provide mindful and heart-felt listening. We help by assisting in identify and access inner resources for coping. We help by providing end-of-life bereavement support. We help by providing the space and time for mediation support in situations of conflict. We help by facilitating connections between patients, families or staff and spiritual leaders from diverse religious communities. We help by leading and facilitating ceremonies, rites of passage, religious rituals, meditation and prayer catering to the specific religious or faith tradition the patient belongs to. The list can go on but what is important in all of this is the attention to the human being at a time when he or she might think all hope is lost. We provide that support for the patient and family during difficult times.
Now I will mention a few points on what I AM NOT! I am not an ordained priest. Chaplains do not have to be ordained in order to be a chaplain. This is a misconception that sometimes I see from the medical team when they make a joke about me not having a white collar or white hair. Anyone with the training and passion for caring for patients can be a chaplain. Many times I get people telling me that "I am too young and wasting my life in this line of work". That is simply not true at all. You can be ordained and be a chaplain but it is not a requirement. If anyone is contemplating chaplaincy you can be reassured you do not have to be ordained in any way shape or form. Being an ordained minister is one type of ministry and chaplaincy is another form of ministry.
Lastly, why does it matter? It matters for many reasons. Firstly, staff feels directly and indirectly supported by the presences of a chaplain on the unit which helps reduce compassion fatigue. Spiritual care enhances patient connection with community support. Studies have shown that spiritual well-being is linked to their overall quality of life. Spiritual care can support increased health and shorten recovery periods. Religion and spirituality of any kind are often cited as major sources of support and coping. Also, many patients in acute care want to receive spiritual care and support from the little as listening to patients to providing prayer support to making a referral for a patient who needs access to community resources (IE. clergy to take confessions or give communion). These sample reasons and much more is why chaplains are needed in the medical system for the care of the patient, family members, and staff members. I hope this has helped clear the air to all my friends who have asked me about chaplaincy and the type of "things" we do for patients. If you want more information or have any questions feel free to ask! I leave you with this video when I was a student at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre: