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Faith, Good Listening – and Good Hugging – Skills: Chaplaincy at ellenor

The hospice was founded in 1985 – but there aren’t many people who’ve worked there for its close to four decades of existence.

Well… there is one person.

That’s ellenor’s chaplain, Lesley Gould. A Reader at St Mary’s Church in Gravesend, Lesley was born a Catholic. Early in life, however, she briefly drifted from her faith. Before rediscovering it, after walking past the local church and hearing singing from within.

“I thought, ‘I want some of that; that companionship, that spiritual growth.’”

Soon, she was training to be a Pastoral Assistant – and loving it. But there was one aspect of her training, in particular, that resonated.

“I’d always loved the bereavement side of the training,” explains Lesley. “I really connected with it – supporting a dying person, and their bereaved family members.

“I knew I had to take that path.”

When ellenor opened its doors for the first time, in 1985, Lesley was there. Ready to do what she loved – and still loves – most. Providing spiritual care to people approaching the end of their lives, and their loved ones.

Many patients approach Lesley directly. Sometimes, it’s to plan a wedding – other times, a funeral.

These discussions can take place at ellenor’s Coldharbour Road-based hospice in Northfleet, or from within the patient’s home. There, Lesley explains, it’s the patient who leads the conversation.

“We talk about what the patient wants to talk about. Their funeral, the prayers they want read there. The family is involved, too.”

That family involvement is, of course, important. Before – and even many months after – a patient has died, Lesley stays in touch with their loved ones to support them.

“I’ll ring the family of the patient a night before the funeral, and six weeks after. When a year has passed, I’ll send a card. To say ‘I’m still here, I’m still thinking about you – you’re not on your own’. It’s important that people know you are still there – that you haven’t simply done the funeral, then walked away and left them.”

The spiritual care Lesley provides is one arm of ellenor’s ‘holistic’ approach to care. One that aims not to treat the illness alone, but the person. Through this lens, the care ellenor provides isn’t only clinical. But psychological, social, emotional – and spiritual – too.

It’s something that, according to Lesley, is vital.

“I think there’s a deepening need for spiritual care,” she explains. “It’s not just for the dying, but for the living. It’s for the patients’ relatives, too – who are always very glad that a chaplain has been present at the funeral of, and said prayers for, their loved one.

“As hospice chaplains, we care for the whole person. While we may not have all the answers, we’re good listeners – and we know that asking the thoughtful questions is an important part of helping people move towards peace during such a delicate time in life.”

ellenor is, of course, a non-denominational charity. It accepts people of all faiths, religions, and belief systems – not just Christians alone.

It begs the question – does a hospice need a chaplain?

“Absolutely!” replies Lesley. “Everyone needs spiritual guidance sometimes. It’s our job to walk with them – to guide them and let them know that there’s a loving God looking after them. It’s hard for people who are dying to understand that, but He is there. He’s here; he’s with them all the time.

“Our role? To be there with them, too. To look after them; to love them; to pray for them.”

But, as Lesley explains, chaplaincy is never a mandatory requirement. And it’s not something a patient has to accept. 

“When I meet a new patient, I don’t go bowling in with a bible under my arm. I simply say ‘my name is Lesley, I’m one of the chaplains here, and – if you want to speak to me – I’m around’. Maybe they don’t want to speak to me; maybe they do.”

What’s more, the conversations Lesley has with patients don’t ever have to revolve around religion.

However, Lesley claims, God tends to make Himself heard.

“A man named Peter came into ellenor, as a patient. He was here for a long time – a good few months. We got on really, really well – had so many conversations, spoke about everything under the sun. But he wasn’t religious.

“After he died, his wife said to me ‘do you know he turned to God because of you?’ And I had no idea – we never brought up God, never talked about Christianity, because he said he didn’t have belief. But his wife told me that, in the end, he did.”

Lesley has always been a big talker. But she’s quick to acknowledge that the key to being a good chaplain is actually the opposite –listening.

“There are times when no words are needed. Sometimes, a person’s spiritual comfort is found in silence. This can often be a difficult form of comfort, as many of us tend to want to fill that ‘empty space’ with words. But we need to learn that silence isn’t empty at all, but rich and full – and it can be very satisfying.”

Helping people find compassion and comfort, then, is a key part of a chaplain’s role. The other part? Hugs.

“I went to visit one lady, who asked me – ‘do you give hugs?’

“My response?” Lesley beams. “‘I give the best hugs!’