Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Hospice chaplains minister to the dying with time, presence

by Jami LeBrun, Inland Register staff

(From the May 19, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Ann Hurst, Deacon Chalo Martinez Right: Deacon Chalo Martínez was honored as Volunteer Chaplain of the Year by Hospice of Spokane. With him is Ann Hurst, chaplain manager for Hospice. Deacon Martínez has volunteered with Hospice for about 10 years. (IR photo from Hospice of Spokane)

The terminally ill face many difficult issues. Medical costs, grieving friends and family members, and the importance of ensuring financial stability for their families are serious struggles they must confront. Far too often, their own spiritual and emotional issues are overlooked. And yet these are probably the most important matters in the life of a dying person.

Hospice of Spokane, a not-for-profit, community-based organization, seeks to offer assistance to the terminally ill in every aspect of life. Hospice is a philosophy of care, which emphasizes the principles of death with dignity and grace, comfort care, the client’s right to make their own decisions, and alleviation of fears of dying. Each client is assigned an interdisciplinary team of caregivers, including a physician, a registered nurse, nurse aides, a social worker, counselors, volunteers and – if they choose – a highly trained and qualified chaplain. The members of the team work closely together, and with the client and his or her family, to honor the dignity of the dying person and alleviate their suffering – physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

While hospice chaplains come from a variety of faith backgrounds, each of them has come to the ministry through the guidance of God.

A hospice chaplain’s first priority is to simply be present to the client. Ann Hurst, director of chaplaincy for hospice, explained that everyone – especially the dying – has a need for connection and community. Many terminally ill patients, especially those who are elderly, are isolated and lonely. A chaplain’s gift of time is a gift that is usually very much appreciated.

“No one wants to be alone,” said Deacon Cary Heth of St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley, a volunteer hospice chaplain. “And certainly those who are going through the terrible trial of a critical illness – there are very, very few who want to be alone.”

A chaplain also must listen to the client. They listen to their stories, their fears, their sufferings and their sorrows. By listening, the chaplain helps the client sort out their end of life issues and create an atmosphere of peace and dignity as they live out their final days.

“The most important in anything we do in ministry is presence and listening,” said Deacon John Ruscheinsky, a volunteer hospice chaplain. “We’re not there to fix anything.”

Just as hospice chaplains come from many different walks of life and religious backgrounds, so do their clients. Hospice of Spokane is dedicated to meeting their clients where they are in their spiritual life. While some of clients are deeply religious people who have a firm faith in God, there are others who have no faith, embrace an atheistic worldview, or have fallen away from the faith of their past.

Regardless of the spiritual state of their clients, chaplains commit to helping the client achieve spiritual goals. For some that means finding a priest to hear their confession and anoint them. For others, that simply means finding peace and hope in their last days.

“I’m not there to hit them over the head with the Bible,” said Deacon Heth. “I simply want to be invited into a discussion. Where that goes is up to them.”

“We’re not out to convert anyone or impose a belief on them,” said Hurst. “We’re not Bible thumpers and we’re not grim reapers. We just want to help them to find a feeling of peace.”

Hurst explained that chaplains “accompany clients on a journey.” By asking questions, chaplains help clients to tap into their own inner resources and guide them toward a peaceful death. They help clients with a variety of issues, including forgiveness and reconciliation – especially among family members. Hurst said that often these types of issues are placed on the back burner and given limited importance until the end of life. But when people realize their mortality, regrets begin to surface.

“We learn a lot about living from our clients,” said Hurst, “especially about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Though sorrow is a part of approaching death, dying people also have an opportunity to embrace joy. Hurst said that most people look back on their lives with a sense of gratitude. They rejoice in the gifts of family, friends and wonderful memories, even as they face past mistakes and regrets.

“It’s an amazing ministry,” said Maggie Albo, a hospice chaplain. “People at the end of life have let go of so much. Everything has been stripped away…except that core which is now dying. It’s just the real person. We get to help them know the real person, and come to know them ourselves.”

“The spiritual aspect of dying is the most important,” said Hurst “You want to be at peace – to know that your life was significant, that it had meaning and purpose. You also want to have hope and embrace the joyful things in life and the people that you love.”

Though hospice chaplaincy is a rewarding ministry, it is not without its challenges. As chaplains walk with the client throughout the end of life, the chaplains draw close to the client and the client’s family, developing relationships and investing part of themselves into the lives of their clients. When a client dies, the chaplain offers support for the family members, even while grieving himself. To help their staff and volunteers cope with continuous losses, Hospice of Spokane offers a monthly ceremony to honor those who have died, and the people who have walked with them.

“We have all lost people every month, and we have all walked intimately with those people,” said Albo. “The ceremony is an outlet for grief.”

Hurst said that it is very important for those who work with the dying to find outlets for their own grief.

“We’re obviously touched emotionally,” said Hurst. “We need to acknowledge and honor the impact they have on our lives. We have team meetings to support each other and it’s important to make a practice of engaging in things that renew our spirits.”

Hospice chaplains are highly qualified for the work they do. Many are ordained ministers, priests or deacons with advanced degrees in theology or ministry. Those who are not ordained are required to have Clinical Pastoral Education. They also go through rigorous training through Hospice of Spokane.

Nearly all hospice chaplains work on a volunteer basis. They have other jobs, and many have their own families. Still, they view their important work as a labor of love, and give hours out of each week to the clients they work with.

“It is very challenging work,” said Deacon Ruscheinsky. “But it’s an important task and a moving experience – to bring a certain dignity to the dying person.”

“I’m doing the work that God has called me to do,” said Deacon Heth.

(For more information about Hospice of Spokane, call 509-456-0438 or visit their website at

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