This is what it takes: The spiritual side of palliative care

At our Hospice, we often talk about the amazing care our staff provide for our patients. Elizabeth Palfreman, our Head of Fundraising, recently said that what she admires about our staff is they ask “why not?” never “why?” when delivering our essential palliative care.  

When you examine what it takes to deliver this level of care every day, it’s crucial to understand just how much time, effort and emotion our staff invest into their jobs – so we decided to take a closer look at the working life of one of our spiritual leaders, Father Hugh.

In the Catholic Church, we don’t actually get a whole lot of choice in our assignments. The Hospice was assigned to me by the Bishop, but it has been a wonderful and eye opening experience for me. Taking care of the dying is a central pillar of the Catholic Church and it’s part of the ethos of being a priest.

When I first started, it was quite a learning curve I have to say. Although at that point I had been a priest for almost twenty years, it was definitely new to me to be around so many death beds and grieving families. I had to learn how to handle the dynamics of grief, and how to be present at all times – prepared for the many ways grief may manifest in a person. That takes a certain energy, a certain positivity. Aiming (emphasis upon aiming) always to be professional, open and present for anyone who walks into the hospice. You’re also handling many different and changing situations; for instance at the diagnosis, at times of  strain for family or staff, at someone’s deathbed and subsequently with the grieving relatives and friends. Everyone is different and requires something different.

Listening Helps

When I started at the Hospice, I had some experience with interfaith relationships. I had been a chaplain at a Sixth Form where there were a great many students of the Hindu and Muslim faiths. Of course one tries to form bonds with them as with those of a Christian belief. Most religions and most individuals have crossovers in their belief in a higher being – of whatever variety – and even if we don’t have that in common then we all have a desire to talk and understand.  

The Hospice is a diverse place, and one must always strive to find common ground with everyone as a religious leader. That is once again, a central pillar of the Catholic faith. It involves us being human together and searching together for meaning. There’s that wonderful tenet, “Blame the sin, love the sinner”. We are all sinners – including myself – and that means we must all come together humbly and with a desire to form bonds without judging someone’s heart.

Last year we had a Buddhist patient, although at the time I thought he was a spiritualist, who was seeking spiritual advice. I got to know the patient and his wife quite well, and I subsequently performed the funeral. More recently the wife asked me to attend the anniversary ceremony of his passing. Frankly I was thinking yes I want to attend and listen, and we have common ground but also a lot of differences, and I worried that I would not be able to stay true to my beliefs while not causing offence. I gave a little introduction and then listened along to some of the Buddhist ceremony. I know she loves art and so I used a little Catholic artwork that spoke about the journey towards the light of God, which resonated with her spirituality. She loved it. It was a beautiful representation about how we can come together.

The most important part of the job, the most basic tool is to listen and not impose. From there, you can build that bond with people, and journey forward. You can see how people are going to react and what they may need.  Ecclesiates says “For everything there is a season, A time for every activity under heaven.”

Creating a diverse network of religious leaders

Hospice care in London automatically requires that you are able to source quite a range of religious leaders. At the end of one’s life, I have found people lean on religion more than perhaps they have before. This means that we need to be able to source spiritual advisors to help people during those journeys. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be providing our patients with the care they need.

Ministering the dying is one of the easiest crossovers between all of the religions. Everyone wants to come together to help one another in a deathbed scenario. It’s an easy way to develop interfaith relationships between religious leaders.

When I first started at the Hospice, there was already a small list of religious leaders who had begun visiting the Hospice on a regular basis but there were some gaps. We have to be able to source not just a religious leader from every religion, but also from some sub-groups of the religion. The difference between a Sunni and a Shiite leader is significant and not always one that an be ignored at the end of someone’s life. So I’ve tried to develop strong bonds with as many people as I can.

In fact, lockdown has been a blessing in a strange way because so many leaders have a bit more time. I recently visited the Sunni Regent’s Park mosque. I guess we had all been too busy before! I met an Imam and developed a personal relationship there. Now it’s easier to can call on them whenever a Suuni is in need of spiritual guidance.

I’ve been very lucky to be able to have spiritual discussions with so many people from so many walks of life. It’s an honour to be a part of Hospice work and to help people with their spiritual journey.

This is just one of many parts of what it takes to provide the best in class palliative care. The services our Hospice offer are all free to our patients. But we need donations to continue to provide it. If you have been touched or inspired by Father Hugh’s story please click here to donate whatever you can, even a little can make a big difference. Thank you.

Click to return to the top of the page