Facing the end of our lives can be incredibly daunting. It’s something that no one wants to face alone. But often even family is ill-equipped to handle the complex questions and intense emotions that can arise. That’s where a spiritual counselor comes in to help. One of BAYADA’s spiritual counselors, Reverend Tom Atkins, is eager to help and support people during their end-of-life journey. But what do spiritual counselors do? Let’s take a look at what spiritual or hospice counseling is–and isn’t.
What to expect from spiritual counseling
For Reverend Atkins, who is a member of the BAYADA hospice care team, “The most important thing a spiritual counselor can do is to just listen.” A focus on the need of each patient underlies everything else he does. What that looks like varies depending on the fears, relationships, and faith of each client, but generally spiritual counseling addresses a few big themes:
Reflection on life experiences
In the case of one of Atkin’s patients, it was about fishing, reminiscing about amazing catches, and sharing his passion with his grandchildren. In their sessions, they’d read Field and Stream magazine because that was a key part of the patient’s life. Very frequently, spiritual counseling sessions aren’t sad, they can be a chance to look back and appreciate the best parts of life.
Grappling with legacy
One core human desire is for our lives to mean something, and spiritual counselors such as Reverend Atkins help to better understand that purpose. That can be family or career or frequently these discussions entail decisions about the will and charitable donations. But no matter what, the counseling process is all about what it means to be remembered.
Come to terms with feelings of guilt or regret
A full life contains a list of accomplishments, but it also has its fair share of regrets that can haunt us. To pass on with dignity sometimes means exploring our feelings of regret and trying to do something about the things we can address before it's too late.
Reconnect with family
One of the biggest parts of grief and spiritual counseling is preventing family fracturing. According to Reverend Atkins. “End of life can be an incredibly stressful time for families. Counseling can be an opportunity to instead turn this into a moment for healing.” One example was a patient who struggled with drug addiction. With a lot of genuine animosity and feelings of hurt among his children, counseling was able to bring the family together during the last few months of his life.
Confrontation with doubt
Even those with a strong sense of faith can struggle with doubts. End-of-life is filled with uncertainty, and it’s only natural to feel anxious. Reverend Atkins frequently works with patients experiencing doubt and helps them feel comfortable within their faith tradition.
For many, facing death involves rediscovering old spiritual ties. According to Reverend Atkins, “We find spirituality in the important parts of our lives, one of these is our youth.” What this looks like is entirely different for different faiths. For reconnecting to the Jewish faith, end-of-life care can involve coordinating with a Bikur Cholim or the recitation of a final prayer. For a Catholic, it could mean confessing sins. In the case of a Buddhist, it could be a guided meditation. Because of this, spiritual counselors can mend lost ties with local religious communities, making it possible to rekindle that lost faith.
Bereavement support for the family
Spiritual care doesn’t end when a loved one passes. Most hospice services, like BAYADA, continue to provide grief counseling to family members for several months afterwards, if they choose. Spiritual counselors are a valuable resource for loved ones who need emotional support during this time of transition.
What not to expect from spiritual counseling
People frequently hold preconceived notions about end-of-life counseling. So let’s dispel a few myths about what it’s like to talk with a spiritual counselor:
Spiritual counseling isn’t inherently religious
This is a common preconceived notion, for most people religion and spirituality go hand-in-hand. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Reverend Atkins described one of his experiences speaking with an Atheist. “For him, spiritual care meant reflecting on the personal things that make us human, so we spent hours discussing poetry and literature.” Sometimes spiritual care is reflecting on the beauty we encounter in life and learning to let go.
Counselors aren’t there to convert you
As Reverend Atkins describes it as, “Spiritual care is about your spirit, not someone else’s spirituality.” That means that over the course of his five years with BAYADA, he’s worked with people of all backgrounds and he meets them in their beliefs without judgment. There’s a big emphasis on not converting anyone. Instead, the goal is to provide the support they need at the end.
Hospice spiritual care isn’t one-size-fits-all
Each person takes something different from spiritual counseling. The way Reverend Atkins sees it, “For some, it’s a time of forgiveness, preparation to meet God, and for an afterlife. For others, it means talking with family and using end-of-life care as a time for healing and togetherness. In this way, spiritual counseling can take on various different forms, because no matter what, end-of-life care is about the patient.”
Spiritual counseling where people most want to be: home
Most people prefer to live out their days at home, surrounded by the people they love, and in an environment where they feel most comfortable. With BAYADA Hospice, patients and families are supported by a team of clinicians and caregivers, including spiritual counselors, who bring compassionate care to home. Learn more about end-of-life services at BAYADA.