Patient Referral

Helping patients lead their end-of-life spiritual path: Rick Carrell

By Rick Carrell, Guest Columnist
Cleveland Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND -- As a hospice chaplain, I help people as they face the end of their lives. My calling is to tend to the spirit as the body physically declines. What I know to be true and have witnessed across a spectrum of faiths and beliefs is that everyone, even the most resolute atheists, can find comfort in spiritual care.

There’s a common misconception, stigma even, that chaplains are in it to convert people. As I see it, the chaplain’s role is to discern and join the patient where they are spiritually, and walk with them. Through a personal faith and spirituality, I see God’s grace at the end of life, but professionally, I never impose my beliefs on patients. Rather, I help the dying and their loved ones prepare for the end of a unique life and face the unknown of what’s to come.

Faith is only part of our work — for some people, religion isn’t front and center or even in the conversation — and, just as spirituality exists in many forms, so too does care of the spirit. Faithful people may want someone to pray with, while others want to explore questions about God and religion, death and dying. We also counsel people holding deep regrets; people who seek forgiveness, reconciliation, or closure on open spiritual wounds. We guide people who have accepted dying and people who struggle against it; people who have lived fulfilled lives and people who are lonely and afraid. Above all else, hospice chaplains offer companionship — we validate lives lived, tell people they matter, and assist families through a deeply personal life transition. We let our patients lead, meeting them where they are with matters of faith.

The last three years have been challenging. As hospice chaplains, we do our best work when sitting side-by-side with people, holding their hands, having a conversation, or listening quietly. In the early days of COVID, in-person connections were brought to a halt while everyone navigated isolation and distancing policies. This social separation was devastating for patients, families, and caregivers until vaccinations allowed more in-person visits again.

As we come out of a pandemic and returned to visiting patients in person, I hope this greater understanding about the meaningful place spiritual care in all its manifestations has in helping people in a health care or hospice setting. While most people welcome a chaplain on their hospice team, others are learning more about why receiving emotional care can be solacing as they navigate this time of their life.

At times, patients and families decline our chaplain support outright or put us off until the patient is close to death – the “last rites” moment. But we can do much more in the time leading up to the final hours. Where medical professionals care for the physical body, hospice chaplains tend to spiritual needs. We address core human longings — the desire to be loved unconditionally, to matter, to feel safe and understood, to die at peace.

Our care makes a difference. Research shows patients receiving spiritual care report greater quality of life and more hope and less despair as they near the end of their physical lives. Isn’t this something we’d all ask for our loved ones?

I love my work. It’s my privilege and honor to help people journey from life to death, carried by a spirit that is strong and whole. I encourage people of all faiths or no faith to open themselves to the relief and reassurance spiritual care provides. There are many ways to die, but alone and spiritually bereft is among the worse ones. As a chaplain, I am honored with the opportunities to offer comfort and peace at this sacred time.

The Rev. Rick Carrell is a chaplain for Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care in the Cleveland area.