Life of a Hospice Chaplain

“Listening ears, an open heart, and the ability to hold the uncertainty.” Helen Baly, chaplain at St Clare Hospice, brings us on her journey on the path of chaplaincy, describing how multi-faith (or no faith), spiritual support is such a vital service within the hospice sector.
Published on: Monday 08 Oct 2018 at 11:14

What is chaplaincy?

My name is Helen Baly, and I am the Chaplain at St Clare Hospice. First of all, what is chaplaincy?

“A chaplain is a cleric (such as a minister, priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam), or a lay representative of a religious tradition, attached to a secular institution such as a hospital, prison, military unit, school, business, police department, fire department, university, or private chapel.”

The role of a chaplain is to offer spiritual support to a person who would like to talk about their thoughts and feelings associated with their faith and spiritual beliefs. A chaplain is someone who listens, without judgement, to people of all faiths and none. They offer support in a way that is right for the individual.

All faiths and none

Chaplaincy is all about being aware of diversity, and of people’s different views and beliefs. It brings an open and available service to a variety of people of all faiths – and none.

As a Chaplain, I respect the paths of the major world religions and am able to bring comfort and compassion to those who they serve by honouring each person’s way of travelling these paths. It is all about the individual, and how they want to be supported.

As the UK moves away from participation in organised churches, I believe that people in crisis still have the need for spiritual support, understanding, companionship, and guidance. Chaplains can and do provide that much-needed, on-the-spot professional spiritual support, in the places and times that people need it most.

My journey on the path of chaplaincy

My journey into the world of chaplaincy began when I was at college, training to become a teacher. I had an assignment where I was required to write a comparative essay about a topic of my choice. I decided to write about a comparison of men’s and women’s education in prison.

Once I had approval from my tutor to complete this essay, I asked myself how I was to get into prison – and preferably how to get out on the same day!

I felt that I was guided by God to seek the assistance of chaplaincy teams within prisons in order to gain access and help with my studies. During that time, I fell in love with the work, meeting people (staff and prisoners) and being a part of their journey of life.

My chaplaincy role in prisons

After I had completed my essay, I was left with a calling to work in the chaplaincy department myself. So, once qualified as a teacher, I became a volunteer chaplaincy assistant in Holloway prison (which was a prison for adult women and young offenders). I did this for 6 years.

In my volunteering role, I set up a weekly group exploring a variety of issues, both religious and non-religious for prisoners and staff to engage in.

Then, after 10 years in teaching, having progressed to Head of Department for Religious Education, I left and became the first full-time, female lay chaplain in HMP Wormwood Scrubs (a men’s prison in London).

I led a large multi-faith team where I enjoyed working with people of all different faiths – and none. It is always a privilege to learn about others’ traditions, and how different people’s faiths play a part in their own lives.

I always vividly remember managing to get the relics of St Teresa of Lisieux into Wormwood Scrubs. The relics were on tour throughout the UK, visiting Cathedrals, Convents and other places of worship.  HMP Wormwood Scrubs was the only prison and was the penultimate visit before Westminster Cathedral.

The prisoners were so reverential and respectful. It was an amazing day and so memorable.

It was during my time working in prisons that I truly realised the importance of chaplaincy, and how much of a profound impact accessing spiritual support could have on a person’s life.

Coming to work at a hospice

I was a chaplain in a school prior to joining St Clare. However, in June 2017, it was announced that the school was becoming secular, and therefore my role as chaplain disappeared.

Nevertheless, I saw an advert for a chaplain at St Clare, and I applied and was successful. I haven’t looked back since.

My role at St Clare is to support patients, their families, staff, and volunteers spiritually, offering spiritual guidance for each individual.  I also meet faith representatives from the local community and invite them into the hospice if they wish to pray, or listen to a member of their congregation.

The importance of hospice chaplaincy

Chaplaincy is a vital source of support for those who are crossing the most important times of their lives. Living with a serious illness or approaching death are the primary times when we turn to faith. Even when it has not been a part of our lives until then.

I believe that a person’s spiritual health and awareness has a direct and fundamental impact on all that manifests in their life. The Chaplain brings a listening ear, an open heart, and the ability to hold the uncertainty.

In my role, I speak to the faith of the person I am visiting – regardless of the patient’s history with that faith. I give people a place to explore their deepest thoughts and feelings, honouring confidentially and never judging a person. I am someone who is non-judgemental, accepting people for who they are, and where they are at during that precise moment.

As a chaplain, I always introduce myself to new patients, letting them know my name and role. I attempt to be a presence. When I visit, I ask the patient and family members, ‘how are you, today?’

I also listen and do not talk. In other words, ‘listen more; talk less’.

It is a privilege to meet new people, journeying not only with the patients, but their families.  I also enjoy working with dedicated, professional colleagues, in a lovely environment where I am constantly able to learn and grow myself.

Challenging perceptions of death and dying

There is one guarantee in life, and that is that we are all going to die. For most of us, we do not know where, when or how, but it will happen one day.

There is a phobia and a type of fear when a hospice, death or dying are mentioned.   However, there is also very little understanding of the purpose of a hospice. Some people believe that if you are admitted into a hospice you are definitely going to die imminently. However, this is simply not the case.

The truth about hospices

Hospices offer wide-ranging, personalised care which is provided by a versatile team of different professional staff and volunteers. As well as taking care of people’s physical needs, they also look after their emotional, spiritual and social needs. They support carers, family members and close friends, both during a person’s illness and during bereavement.

Every year in the UK, hospices provide vital care to 200,000 people with terminal or life-limiting illnesses. This is as well as providing support for many of their loved ones. From managing someone’s pain, to looking after their emotional, spiritual and social needs, hospice care supports the whole person, helping them to live their life to the full.

Hospice chaplaincy plays a vital part in this, addressing an individual’s spiritual needs at a time when they most need that support in their lives.

– Helen

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