Spiritual care in a hospice setting, in a secularised country

Earlier this year, we launched a series on Spirituality and Palliative Care that looked at how people deal with crisis and suffering when confronted with life-threatening disease. Following much interest in the subject, we’re delighted to publish more posts.   

Today, our guest writer is Erik Olsman, PhD. Dr Olsman formerly worked as a chaplain in Bardo, a hospice in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands, and is currently Associate Professor of Spiritual Care and Chaplaincy Studies, Protestant Theological University, in Amsterdam and Groningen,the Netherlands. He is also a member of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) Spiritual Care Reference Group.

Dr Erik Olsman.

The hospice nurse asked me to visit the patient. “Are things going to be okay with my daughter?” the patient asked. “What do you mean by that question?” I asked her. She continued and told me her daughter had a boyfriend who was not trustworthy. At the same time, she and her daughter had hardly been in touch with each other for about ten years. I could sense her powerlessness. I surmised there were many untold stories that were painful.

The encounter resonated with my work in psychiatry, where complicated relationships were often part of a person’s struggles. Also, I felt a sense of anxiety about most of the things she said, which I made explicit later during the conversation. “Between the lines, I sense a worry or anxiousness? Do I get that right?” She started sobbing and felt relieved that I had raised the subject. “I’ve been struggling with this, my entire life, you know?! It took so much joy out of my life.” I nodded, listened and remained silent.

It made me think of the protestant theologian Paul Tillich. In his famous book The Courage to Be, he addresses the courage to affirm one’s own being, while life is threatened by non-being, which relates to anxiety: the anxiety of death, guilt and meaninglessness (Tillich, 1952). Also, it made me think of the five male and five female chaplains who were witnesses of hope, not by giving hope as an object to patients, but by acknowledging patients’ anxiety and despair (Olsman, 2020). It points to a central task of chaplains: to bear witness to the suffering of the other.

Another task is to help people articulate what is at stake in their lives. In a secularised country, this articulation is no longer exclusively framed in the language of religious and non-religious institutions. People frame it in their own ways. For me, poetry, singing in a classical choir, reading Jewish and Christian texts and stories, and friends are some of my spiritual sources. During my study in theology, I started reflecting on the content and language of these and other spiritual sources, which helped to widen my vocabulary.

A large vocabulary is required to help people with all kinds of spiritual backgrounds to articulate what is meaningful and meaningless in their life. Existential problems often cannot be solved. Still, it helps when a patient’s experiences, including anxiety, are articulated and acknowledged by a fellow human being. At the end of our conversation, the hospice patient grabbed my hand: “This was a relief, thanks! I feel less lonely now.” I hope chaplains will continue to do this, in collaboration with other professionals (Gijsberts, 2020).


Links and resources

A blend of: On-demand Sessions, Live Presentations, Live Panels hosted by international experts, Children’s Seminar, Poster Sessions, and EAPC Group Meetings will bring you all of the latest research from the world’s top researchers in palliative care. CME accreditation will be available. Masses of content will be available on demand from late September until January 2021.

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LATE-BREAKING ABSTRACTS… Share your experience of COVID-19 and the Palliative Care Response. More information and how to submit your abstract here. Deadline: 31 July 2020.

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