“Our job is to find out who people are, and help when they feel their spirit’s crushed”

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

Jill Thornton is the Lead Chaplain at Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care in Surrey. Here she tells us about making sure patients and staff don’t feel alone during this pandemic, and how the need for spiritual care has grown.

My role is usually based in the day hospice, but we’re not doing that in the normal way now so my focus since the beginning of the pandemic has been the inpatient unit.

One of the things we started doing early on was making daily calls to relatives because the visiting hours are restricted to an hour in the evening. We thought it might be nice for people who would normally come and see their loved ones to know whether they’d had a decent night’s sleep and get other updates, like if they’d been walking the stairs with their physio, or had a bath. Hopefully the calls help us to still get to know the families well, but also let them know the person is being cared for holistically.

We relay messages to people from family who can’t visit, if they’re abroad for instance. Sometimes there’s family close by but the patient doesn’t want them to see them in their situation. They’ll send me emails which I then print out, laminate and take to the patient. This works well but can still feel awkward. My colleague Angie is a complementary therapist but has been helping me on the pastoral care side. We agreed with a patient to turn the camera off at our end during a video call, so they could see their daughter but without her seeing them. It was very emotional for both of them and I really think it’s made a huge difference.

We also offer Comfort Pebbles. We give one to the patient and the other to a family member to hold in their hand, and we’ve got some little heart-shaped buttons for children. It’s all so that people don’t feel completely on their own.

I usually hold a staff reflection once a month where we remember the people who have been in our care. There are a lot more people coming now so we’ve made it fortnightly. We start them with a hand massage led by the complementary therapist because our hands are just so sore having to constantly wash them. We talk about the challenges we’ve faced, and then we remember the people that have died. I’ve got a little rainbow that I bring from home and a candle.

A couple of weeks ago I read Michael Rosen’s poem about the NHS, because it reminds us that we’re not on our own – it’s not just the nurses and the HCAs on the  inpatient unit, there are IT people and handymen, and people who are helping to do all sorts of different things. This week I’ve got The Book of Hopes. It’s been published for children during lockdown and has a beautiful story by Michael Morpurgo called A Song of Gladness. It’s just a way of lifting people for a few minutes out of what’s a hard shift at the moment.

There’s a lot more fear around for everybody. Whether you’re talking to family or patients, if we need to discharge someone, then where do we discharge to? People are concerned about going into a nursing home. There’s a sense of grief being muddled up with a huge amount of fear.  I use a Celtic blessing called Deep Peace of the Running Wave to try and help people recall the places that they love from the past, whether it’s their garden or being on holiday. If they remember those by either being read the blessing or by reading it themselves, they can try to hold on to those things because they haven’t changed, whereas their personal circumstances have, and the world’s gone a bit mad.

People are more open to asking for spiritual guidance now. Very clearly this isn’t a religious need; people often fear that if they’re asking about spirituality, then it must be about religion.  Actually we all have a spirit that sometimes gets squashed or sometimes gets excited. Our job is to try and find out who people are, what the spirit is excited about, and help when people feel their spirit’s being crushed.

I think we are getting better at talking about death and dying, and I’d like to think that this might help us to embrace it in a healthier way. It doesn’t mean that we’re jinxing ourselves talking about it, but to be prepared, just as we would be prepared for any eventuality, is helpful.

In the long term the pandemic will cause psychological distress. We’re going to need to use our mental health network and get better at asking for help. But I’d also like to think that we might be a bit more aware of what we can do for ourselves. I talked to a patient about VE Day celebrations who would have been involved with his British Legion in lots of events to mark that weekend. On one hand we were talking about what a shame it was that all those plans went to waste, but also how many ad hoc street parties happened because we couldn’t just rely on the British Legion to do it for us. I walked with my daughter round our neighbourhood and there were people sitting in their front gardens with a pot of tea and chatting to people on the other side of the street. We will need the support of one another, and counsellors, and people who know about mental health. But I’d also like to think that we might be a bit better at appreciating things like our garden or our neighbours in a way that we just took for granted before.

One of the most powerful experiences I will remember from this time is a patient who came to us feeling very peaceful and accepting of her situation. However she had one big concern, that her daughter was giving birth abroad at the end of June, and she wanted to make it to that date. We come across this a lot with patients, that sense that they’re ready to go but something holds them back and they can’t find peace.

This lady referred to the baby yet to be born as Emerald, so I found some green glass beads that we use as decorations in the chapel, and we agreed that she’d record a message for her daughter and for the baby. She held these glass beads in her hand, and said these beads she was holding were hers at the moment, but would one day be theirs. They’re hardly worth anything at all but suddenly took on so much meaning. That seemed to give her great comfort.  People talk about needing to put their affairs in order, and that was certainly her situation.

In the last few days of her life, with all the beautiful green of the trees and the green of the grass, I would talk to her each day about what was happening outside and the fact that nature was reclaiming the world. That gave her a lot of peace. Having these conversations were a unique opportunity, and probably something that was helpful for us both.

For more information visit Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice Care 

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