The six months that Shirley Worthington’s husband spent bedridden before he passed away last October were hard for her, but with the help of a hospice chaplain, she was able to get through.
Worthington, a Grantsville resident, said her husband got to the point where he couldn’t care for himself and had to be put into a hospice program. He was still able to live at home, but had nurses come in at least every other day to take care of his needs. At that time, Worthington was given the option to have a chaplain visit her and her husband to give spiritual support. “Knowing that there was someone there I could call and talk to at any given time was very comforting and helpful,” Worthington said. “My husband was declining, so as far as the chaplain being able to communicate with him, he wasn’t able to do that. But it was nice to have him come for me.”
A chaplain in the traditional sense is a Christian clergyman attached to a private chapel of a prominent person or institution, and oftentimes ministers to a military body or professional group. A hospice chaplain’s job is slightly different. Hospice chaplains minister and care for hospice patients of all denominations, and even to those who do not believe in a God. In Tooele County, many of the home health and hospice businesses have a nondenominational chaplain who provides spiritual assistance to hospice patients near the end of their life. Mountain West Home Health/Hospice and Community Nursing Services, both in Tooele, each have one chaplain who visits with patients and helps them come to terms with end of life issues. Harmony Home Health & Hospice in Tooele has two chaplains who do the same.
Ned Bevan and Leonard Barber, the chaplains for Harmony Home Health & Hospice, said they provide services to family members and caregivers of those who are in the hospice program and are terminally ill. They each typically visit about five households each week.
“Our responsibility has to do with their [hospice patients] social, spiritual and cultural well being,” Bevan said. “But sometimes our concern is more centered toward family members or caregivers. That’s who we spend time with, and we do what we can to help them and support them.”
Barber, who has been a chaplain for a year, said although families often need comfort and support when a loved one falls ill, the chaplains can usually help the ill person to accept death and pass on rather than suffering.
“Death is part of life, it’s a natural process,” said Bevan, who has been a chaplain for five years. “I often tell people there’s nothing wrong with dying, that’s just what we do.”
Barber said toward the end of life many people reflect on the past and often have unresolved issues that keep them from relaxing enough to pass away when it’s their time to do so.
“We come across people occasionally who have unresolved issues with family members,” he said. “We try to help them get those resolved. Some unfortunately can’t, but it’s a time for people to reflect on their lives. It’s a time when they ask a lot of questions, like ‘why is this happening to me?’ and ‘what will happen to my family?’”
Brad Mower, registered nurse and clinical lead at Harmony Home Health & Hospice, said nurses can help patients physically, but the chaplains can sometimes alleviate emotional or spiritual pain. “It’s very difficult for a person to pass away if they aren’t relaxed,” Mower said. “We have patients who often linger. Sometimes it’s hard to tell why, because physically they should pass away. So we’ll call a chaplain and he will find out why they are still here. It’s usually unfinished business. Once the things that were left unsaid — say between a husband and wife — have been taken care of, they pass away.”
Bevan said he and Barber are both non-denominational chaplains, meaning whatever a person’s religion, they will support that patient’s spiritual beliefs. “If they’re members of a certain church, we will ask them if they would like us to help them make a connection there if they haven’t for a long time,” Bevan said.
The chaplains occasionally come across people who in the past never had and spiritual or religious beliefs, but they still do the best they can to help them in whatever way they can.
“I have people who’ve said they were agnostic or atheist, but I think as they get toward the end of life, they do have a belief in something that they haven’t necessarily defined,” Bevan said. “If they don’t have a belief system, I’ll answer the questions they have in the best way I can on what I believe, but we’re not there to teach or preach anything.”
Bevan and Barber have not worked with anyone who isn’t Christian, but they have both worked with people who didn’t believe in an afterlife. Barber said although some people do not claim to be religious, they most often always have a belief in something. “Something about us humans is that we create that for ourselves,” he said. “We mostly come across people who are Christian, because mostly in Tooele this is what we have, but regardless, we’re there just to go along the journey they’re on.”
Bevan said because he and Barber are both LDS, they will give hospice patients an LDS blessing, but only if they request it. “We don’t promote or advertise our religion,” he said. “We only do it if someone asks for it.”
Because both chaplains are LDS, they ask spiritual leaders from different denominations to perform other religious acts, such as Catholic last rites.
“We try to let the patients’ spiritual leaders of their denomination be aware of their needs and let them take care of it, because they are the experts,” he said. After a person passes away, the chaplains attend their funeral and stay in touch with their family and caregivers.
“A chaplain’s work doesn’t stop at death,” Bevan said. “We try to make a visit with the family within 48 hours of a person’s passing, and we check back in a few weeks or more often if needed to make sure they’re going to be OK. Some people take this pretty hard. We do what we can to help them through that.”
At first, Bevan said being a chaplain was hard and seeing so much death weighed on them. “As time goes on, and we deal with this on a regular basis, I’m not going to say we get used to it, but we realize there’s nothing wrong with dying,” he said.
Because of this realization, Bevan said he’s more prepared for his own death.
“It gives me a stronger assurance that it’s something I can do,” he said. “I’m not as worried about it as I once was.”
Barber said although being a chaplain is a full-time job, he finds it to be much more than just a job. “It’s more of a calling,” he said. “You have to be a certain type of person because you are asked to put in a lot of time, but you don’t mind doing that. The real pay on this job is the feelings you get from the appreciation and love of the families.”