FORT MADISON – At points in our lives the unknown can be daunting. The unexpected can cause anxiety and fears. When it comes to Hospice, end-of-life care can be uncharted territory for patients and their loved ones. The Hospice Chaplain looks to be not only spiritual guidance, but a friend a patient and their family may need to help them on this journey.
Lee County Health Department – Hospice is fortunate to have two Hospice Chaplains to work with families. Larry Wallingford, Living Water Assembly of God in Keokuk, recently joined the team in September 2017 as our Hospice Chaplain, and John Simpson, First Christian Church in Fort Madison, has been on the LCHD-Hospice Team since 2000.
“Having two chaplains as part of our hospice team allows us to better serve our client base,” said Teresa Gilbert, LCHD Hospice Program Director. “Both go above and beyond to assist our clients and their families.”
For Pastor Wallingford the call to be a Hospice Chaplain happened when he spoke with Gilbert at a funeral. He felt a calling to work with hospice, and made it known to Gilbert. “I believe I have the skill set, compassion, growth, maturity and integrity to serve in the position, and so far it has been an enjoyable experience working with the hospice team.”
When Pastor Simpson arrived in Fort Madison, as a new pastor he was called on to see if he would have any interest in serving on the hospice team. “I was intrigued by the offer, however being the new guy in town I wanted to get my bearings with my new church and my new community, so I agreed to help out on an as-needed basis.” Simpson said.
He has been called on many times to talk with families, and to participate in the Hospice Tree of Love ceremonies.
Starting the Conversation
Part of the hospice journey for a chaplain involves the navigation of finding a commonality between them and the patient and family. Both Simpson and Wallingford agree that they will spend time just letting the patient do the talking. Asking questions about how they met their spouse, how long they’ve lived in the area, what sort of work they did – all these seem to bring people together and to ease into possibly more difficult topics like dying and heaven. “I want them to feel safe in sharing whatever they have on their mind and in their heart,” states Wallingford. “I try to focus on the basic needs of every person is loved and wants to be loved, and also valued and cared for. If I am able to do that then we find that common ground.”
Simpson says he loves a good story. “I try to get them to share memories. The more they talk, the better I like it.” He also tries to bring the family in on the conversation. He has watched children learn things about their parents that they didn’t know about. “It truly is a remarkable thing how at this point in their journey they are still learning new things about each other. Memories that they can carry with them.”
The Elephant in the Room
For some, hospice can be a realization of what is to come. For those who practice a religion, and for those who don’t, entering hospice can bring up the “what’s next” question.
“I don’t avoid the subject of death, nor do I focus on it entirely,” Simpson said. “I let them tell me their feelings, share their faith traditions, and how they feel about things, particularly about dying.”
It is sort of that elephant in the room. The subject that should be discussed, but the one many don’t want to. Simpson keeps in mind that death is the one thing everyone has in common.
For those who haven’t practiced their religion in a while, and for those who don’t believe, the LCHD-Hospice Chaplains are still available for those who would like to visit.
Simpson said he will ask a family if they would like to pray.
“Some take me up on the offer, and some don’t, which is completely fine,” he said.
Wallingford has had families who wish to pray about non-related hospice issues. He feels that at this stage of life some feel forgotten.
“I’ve only worked in hospice for a short time, but even for their families, there is a sense of being overlooked.” Wallingford said, “So I try to send a note so they know I’ve remembered them, and that I am praying for them.”
Celebration of Life
As pastors, they see firsthand working with families through the lifespan. Meeting with a young couple who is preparing for marriage. Then seeing that couple start a family and seeing families grow through the many celebrations of life, including the celebration of life at a funeral. For Wallingford, working in hospice has taught him to slow down and take time to value life, and that is something he tries to express in his visits.
“Life is so short. It’s here and then it’s gone.” he said, “It’s amazing what a short phone call, a note, a card, or a short visit does to encourage people at the end of their life.” Those small gestures mean something not only to the patient, but to the family as well.”
Simpson said no matter the path one takes the end is the same for everyone.
“In my position as a pastor, and as a hospice chaplain, we are invited into the personal lives of one’s life journey. It may be toward the end of that journey, but we are still on the path together,” Simpson said.
Lee County Health Department – Hospice began offering hospice services in 1989; making them the first hospice in Southeast Iowa. They serve Lee, Des Moines, Henry, Van Buren counties in Iowa, and Hancock and Henderson counties in Illinois. For more information on the Lee County Health Department-Hospice services call (319)372-5225 or visit www.leecountyhd.org.
John Simpson and Larry Wallingford, Lee County Health Department-Hospice Chaplains, enjoy visiting with families in hospice about their life and memories.