David Cribbin on Pastoral Care

My journey as a chaplain in Galway Hospice has been a long and very varied one.

For 20 years I was a priest in The Philippines and in Ireland. For eight of those years, I was chaplain in the Galway University Hospital and it was a role and ministry that I really loved, enjoyed and found particularly fulfilling and suited to. 

As a hospital chaplain you see the whole of life, everything, from life and death in the maternity ward, to the neonatal ward, ICU, A&E, the oncology wards along with every other ward and area of the hospital. It was a very privileged, rewarding and humbling place in which to work. During my eight years in GUH, I saw and experienced a huge amount of life’s ups and downs, of sickness, healing, tragedy, courage, love, care and bravery. It was during my time there that I discovered that I was particularly drawn to end-of-life care. 

Then, three-and-a-half years ago, I felt that it was time for a change of direction in my life and so I decided to leave the priesthood and walk another road. I subsequently found myself reflecting on and looking at what to do and where to go next in life. What became clear to me from the outset was the reality that I loved chaplaincy. It was second nature to me as I had already spent most of my life, whether in parishes or in hospital, doing it and living it out. So I retrained and upskilled and afterwards got a chaplaincy post in Milford Hospice, Limerick. A year later a chaplaincy job was advertised for Galway Hospice which I applied for. I was fortunate enough to have been offered the position and that is how I ended up back in Galway and here in Hospice doing something that I love. Hospice chaplaincy was a natural progression for me, not too dissimilar, in some ways, to what I was doing previously and yet very different in others.

When people are sick they are very vulnerable.  Families too are equally upset and appreciate that someone has time to spend listening to their fears and anxieties. Pastoral care is all about accompanying patients and their families on their journey through life with sickness. 

‘We all help each other to look after the patient and the family’

Spirituality is what gives meaning to a person’s life. When someone is facing end-of-life or has a life-limiting condition life is thrown upside down and, very often, things that once gave meaning to the person no longer do. That is a spiritual crisis and our role as chaplains is to help patients and their families find meaning again in the new reality and world of illness in which they find themselves. As a chaplain, I try to offer spiritual and emotional support to people in their search for meaning. Pastoral Care is all about listening to people’s stories and in trying to help people to express their feelings. We work with other disciplines in providing a holistic service that is geared towards total patient care and ministry to their family. 

As a hospice chaplain I am in a privileged position to be able to accompany people on their journey through life and into death while all the time supporting their family members.

The role of Hospice/Hospital chaplain has changed dramatically over the years. Up until about 10 years ago chaplaincy was a role generally served by priests and nuns and, as a result, was widely seen as being primarily religious by nature. However, in recent years, the role of the chaplain has evolved and changed hugely so as to meet and to adapt to the changing, multi-cultural, multi-faith, secular and diverse Ireland in which we now live.

As a result most hospice/hospital chaplains now are lay chaplains and our role is to be available to journey with all patients of any faith and none. It does not matter to us what people believe or don’t believe in. We are here for everybody so as to help them ‘find their feet again’ in the new reality of sickness in which they find themselves.

For some people, religion is what gives meaning to their life, for more people it is family, the environment, their job…just about anything. When you get sick or are faced with a life-changing or life-limiting illness, what has given meaning to you up to then is very often gone or changed dramatically. As a chaplain, you’re here to help people find new meaning as they face end-of-life or face life-limiting conditions. 

‘It’s the thing with hospice, everybody needs everybody.’

People associate spirituality with religion but while everybody is spiritual, not everybody is religious. Our ministry is to patients, relatives and staff of all faith traditions and of none. We link in with the different churches, different faiths, if that’s what gives people strength… Whatever is important for the patient and for their family is what is important to us and we try to address their needs and concerns, support them, be there for them and most importantly to listen to them. 

One of the commitments that the Hospice makes to families when their loved ones come into our care, is that we will look after their loved one for as long as they are in our care. We also make a commitment to the patient that we will look after their family when they’ve gone and we do so by offering ongoing bereavement support post death. 

I spend a lot of time sitting with people who ‘pop-in’ to the Hospice for a chat and a cuppa in the weeks or months after their loved one has died. There can be great healing in coming back to the Hospice after a loved one has died. Very often all people want is someone who will listen to them….and that is what we do as chaplains…We listen and we let the other do the talking.

It’s one of the reason why the Hospice has different events throughout the year to help families on the grieving journey. We invite people back to the hospice for a Remembrance Evening around four months after their loved one has died. The Annual Remembrance Mass every November is very important and can bring great healing and comfort to families. We also have the Tree of Lights Celebration every December where the deceased are remembered through the lighting of the Hospice Christmas tree. There’s something powerful about it, knowing that you’re not alone. Everyone beside you has gone through the same thing. You’re alone yet you’re all in it together.

It’s the thing with hospice, everybody needs everybody. If the fundraisers weren’t fundraising, the doors wouldn’t be able to open in the morning. If the cleaners weren’t working, the Hospice would shut down for health and safety reasons and so on. No one job is any more important than another. In Galway Hospice every role is equally important. 

We all exist and work together so as to provide the best possible holistic care to our patients and to support their family members to the very best of our ability while they are in our care. That is our bottom line. That is why we exist and that is what we do best.

David Cribbin has served as Pastoral Care Chaplain at Galway Hospice since August 2018. 


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