OUR aim as chaplains is to offer pastoral, spiritual, and religious support to patients and staff appropriate to their circumstances and understanding. We do this through individual patient visits, ward visits, and by being a presence at the heart of the organisation. We are proud that one of the first doors you come to from the main entrance to our hospitals is the chaplaincy and spiritual-care office.
Covid-19 has, of course, been a massive challenge to everyone. It has been a challenge to society, as offices, shops, and the leisure industry have closed. A great deal of industry ground to a halt. Many individuals were shielding, and just about everyone was prevented from seeing their loved ones. Weddings were postponed, funerals went ahead but with previously unimaginable restrictions, and we have handed over control of our lives to others.
The Church has had to find new ways of working, and, like many other organisations, may never — and, some would argue, should never — be the same again.
FOR the NHS and hospital chaplaincy, the changes were fast and unprecedented: the many routine workings of the hospital were sacrificed for a total focus on supporting the seriously ill and Covid-19 patients.
Practically, for us, by mid-March, volunteers had been asked to stay away, and relatives, other than in extreme circumstances, were stopped from coming to the hospital. As we write, many of these restrictions remain in place.
There were no volunteers, and some of the chaplaincy team needed to shield; so we rearranged our work accordingly, and, with the support of one honorary chaplain and one part-time “on-call” chaplain, have been supporting the staff and patient community throughout.
We have been privileged to be able to offer a “Thought for the week” for staff, which has been well-received, and have been working at every level of the hospital to offer support.
We had the unthinkable task of supporting the family of our colleague, a nurse, Josephine Peter, who died of the virus, and, on their behalf, planning and taking her funeral. The “clap past” arranged on the day of her funeral, as her cortège passed outside, was incredibly moving.
We have been trained in using masks and full PPE, and have, at times, looked more like space travellers than chaplains. This has enabled us to offer ministry in all areas of the hospital, however, including our intensive-care unit. On many occasions, we have held the hands of dying patients when their family could not be there, sometimes holding phones to help conversations happen.
There was a need for our support which we have never experienced before. It was physically and emotionally draining.
Besides supporting the hospital community, we were asked to do many funerals, on the basis that we were with patients when their families could not be. In more routine situations, we were visiting Covid and non-Covid patients, and had the privilege of being their only visitors; and, in this unique circumstance, bringing conversation, news, and support.
Other staff and teams have, of course, done many incredible things, among them offering the facility for patients to communicate with families by means of video calls, and delivering letters sent by email. In many cases, our staff needed to read out these messages for those who were unable to do so for themselves.
AS THE unpredictable virus did its worst, we saw the horrendous and the miraculous, and, from the whole hospital team, incredible acts of self-sacrifice.
In terms of theological and spiritual reflection, it is, perhaps, a bit early yet. Processing life-changing experiences must shape our faith and outlook on life, and cannot be rushed. That said, over the past months, we have had the privilege of offering a servant ministry, which is what chaplains do all the time.
It has been said many times during the Covid pandemic that “the Church has not closed; it has simply left the building”. Hospital chaplaincy and spiritual care services have been taking church beyond the church building for years.
Every day reach out in faith and hope, offering genuine, integrity-filled spiritual support in the wonder and terror of life’s experience. That has not changed over the past months, and nor can we see it changing.
Within the hospital community, we have got used to keeping one another safe by wearing masks. Looking forward, we hope that people will recognise the importance of protecting each other by the wearing of masks. It seems a small thing to ask to protect us from seeing again some of the horrors of the past months.
The Revd Martin Abrams and the Revd Jan Fraser work for the Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust as Chaplaincy Manager and Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, and Chaplain respectively.