Spiritual health in times of illness

Published on: 1 November 2017

Helen Garrard is Lead Chaplain to Colman and Norwich Community Hospitals. The role has grown to incorporate providing and managing chaplaincy care in 10 community hospitals within the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust.

I’m based at Priscilla Bacon Lodge (PBL) in central Norwich and the majority of my work is there. Priscilla Bacon Lodge is a 16-bedded specialist palliative care unit with day care facilities, community specialist nurses and outpatient services. Chaplaincy sits within the Psycho-spiritual Care Team and I have responsibility for managing two community chaplains and a small team of volunteers.

A typical day begins with ward staff, for a handover of all the patients. This will help me to prioritise which patients to spend time with.

Spiritual health has strong implications for our overall well-being. Patients coping with life changing or terminal illness are often overwhelmed with its impact on their bodies. Offering a space where patients can gently explore these feelings and experience deep strengths of their soul, spirit, relationships and memories is central to my work. Often conversations begin with a simple question such as “do you feel at peace?“ or “would it help to talk to someone?“

For some, religion will help frame their spirituality; for others, illness will bring to mind a faith they once held. This may be the right time to explore this, but some patients may feel ambivalence or anger towards God. Like all my chaplaincy colleagues, I am very clear in offering availability to all patients, visitors and staff, whether or not they have a personal faith. For patients who have a faith other than Christianity, I work collaboratively with other local religious leaders.

Patients are often confronted with feelings of guilt or regret around past events or broken relationships. David, a 49-year-old man with terminal cancer was acutely aware of losing contact with his sister eight years earlier, after what he described as a silly argument.

We spent many hours thinking about this and exploring a way forward. David had no religion himself but was deeply moved by the parable of the Prodigal Son as we thought in depth about the stages of moving away from and back towards our loved ones. In time David asked that I contact his sister and with support they spent some very poignant hours together before his death.

I frequently support patients and families in planning funerals, but we also encourage celebrations. I conduct baptisms, marriage and relationship blessings, thanksgivings, weekly services and arrange confirmations.

In addition to patient care, my day will include meetings, teaching, supervising and supporting staff, maintaining the chapel and visiting other Trust hospitals. I am privileged to have a steady flow of ordinands and Reader candidates completing their placements at PBL.

It is an enormous blessing to support people facing serious illness which I never take for granted. The Chapel is a sanctuary where all can find peace and leave a thought or prayer.

That is where my day ends, in quiet prayer, trust and offering.

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