Bringing comfort to hospice patients and their families

02 February 2024

Chaplains bring peace and support to people in the most unlikely places. To mark World Cancer Day, Karen Murphy, a hospice chaplain for the past 18 years, shares her thoughts and feelings about her role.

Recently Karen helped a woman who had undergone breast surgery some years ago and decided not to have reconstruction and to be, as she calls it, ‘a flatty’. She had many questions such as Who am I and how do I present myself to the world? Not necessarily faith questions, but very spiritual ones. The woman had designed what she called a capsule wardrobe, in which she felt comfortable and looked good. Karen loved the idea and encouraged her to share her designs.

“It was wonderful. Some people would say, well, that's not spiritual care, but it was, because it restored a lot to her spirit and to her sense of who she was,” explains Karen. “Equally, there's a patient I see most months who has motor neuron disease and I support him by taking him communion. That's more of a faith-based connection.”

Hospices care for those with any life-limiting illness providing palliative care, either inpatients or attending day hospice services.

Regardless of their faith, Karen is there for anyone who wants to chat with her. “As they face a life-limiting illness, the majority of people tell me they are not religious but they have questions of a spiritual nature, such as ‘Who am I? What do I believe in? What gives me hope? Where do I find peace?’ My role is to provide them with the spiritual care that helps them to answer these questions,” explains Karen.

Helping patients and their families come to terms with a short prognosis is tough but a task hospice chaplains have experience of. “One patient I talk with is a young woman whose cancer has spread. Her life expectancy has shortened and she may not live the rest of this year. She was unable to switch off her brain, thinking about her fears, her worries and her concerns. I find that jigsaws can help me to clear my own mind, so I suggested she try it. The next time I met her, the first thing she said was that the jigsaws were wonderful and she's managed to switch off some of her darker thoughts. People might say that's not spiritual care, but it's about soothing her spirit and giving her space to clear that fear from her head for a while.

“A hospice is also a place celebrating life where patients can get married or have a ceremony for family members intending to be married or baptised.

“None of this work would be possible without the support of the team and the volunteers at the hospices. Working at a hospice is deeply rewarding but can also be tough at times and supporting one another is key to ensuring each other's wellbeing.”

Official website of World Cancer Day