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Reflections of a Hospice Chaplain

As a hospice chaplain, Father Christian Villagomeza knows firsthand the power of spirituality and how it can affect care for hospice patients. He spiritually assists patients, primarily at LifePath Hospice, with his unique approach by way of a spiritual prescription.

Push and Pull of Empathy

hospice chaplainWhen faced with advanced illness or a terminal diagnosis, people tend to rely heavily on their religious beliefs and faith as a coping mechanism. At the same time, questioning faith can also be a focus as many grapple with the meaning of life at the end. Whether a patient follows a religion, spiritual care is of vital importance and integral to the hospice care plan.

No doubt sometimes hospice chaplains can find themselves in sticky situations among family members. “While our primary focus is often the patient or other person we are working with, we can be brought into situations where family members are at odds with one another, staff or even the patient,” said Father Christian. “We may be brought in to help defuse a volatile meeting or try and get the family on the same page.

“The reason for this often comes down to two of the most important skills we have in our toolbox: our capability of empathy and our ability to listen non-judgmentally,” continued Father Christian who enjoys sharing music with his patients.

Sympathy and empathy are often used synonymously, but they are different in experience. Sympathy could best be understood as “feeling for,” while empathy could be understood as “feeling with.”

You can have sympathy for someone’s sorrow without feeling that sorrow yourself. But if you have empathy for someone, you not only can understand someone’s sorrow but also feel some of that sorrow yourself.

A common example is grief: You can sympathize with someone in grief knowing that he or she is sad and wish to comfort the individual. But if you have lost someone yourself, you can better feel the sorrow that someone else feels when they have lost someone.

“Empathy is difficult at times because it can push us into areas of pain that make us want to fix the situation,” stated Father Christian.

As a hospice chaplain, training in the scope of practice involves identifying where one’s boundaries are in the spectrum of helping relationships. Hospice chaplains need to be aware that they can easily be drawn into situations where they become rescuers and fixers.

“Self-awareness of this dynamic is critically important to each role and development – because we are all affected by the push and pull of empathy,” added Father Christian.

Unique Approach of a Hospice Chaplain

At the Melech Hospice House in Temple Terrace, Father Christian finds that he encounters more and more patients and loved ones from different cultures. “Each brings along various religious rituals and spiritual approaches,” said Father Christian. As a spiritual care specialist, it is vital to hone one’s knowledge to be more keen and adaptive in understanding each of these cultural views.”hospice chaplain

At the time of death, face-to-face bereavement is sometimes spontaneous so a hospice chaplain learns instantly some of the rituals patients and families practice. For example, contemplation and meditation on death and impermanence are regarded as very important in Buddhism for two reasons:

  1. It is only by recognizing how precious and short life is, that people are most likely to make life meaningful and live it fully.
  2. By understanding the death process and familiarizing one’s self with it, a person can remove fear at the time of death and ensure a good rebirth.

“It is said that the aim of a Buddhist is to have no fear or regrets at the time of death because the way in which they live their lives and state of mind at death directly influences their future lives,” added Father Christian. “It is believed that people who practice Buddhism to the best of their abilities will die in a state of great bliss.”

According to Father Christian, he learned quite a lot about Buddhist belief and practice from a family member whom he was assisting with bereavement. “With Buddhism, even the mediocre practitioner will die happily and the initial practitioner will have neither fear nor dread at the time of death.”

Therefore, in Buddhist practice, one should aim at achieving at least the smallest of these results when the end comes.

At Chapters Health System, every day is devoted to educating our patients and keeping them in the place they call home. We are dedicated to ensuring that patients, young and old alike, and their families are able to make educated decisions about important healthcare matters. For more information, please call our helpful Chapters Health team at 1.866.204.8611 or send an email to

About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Corporate Communications for Chapters Health System, manages all content and communications for the not-for-profit organization.

The Gift of Music

A couple of months ago, a beautiful gift was given to LifePath Hospice when Angela Zhu called to learn more about volunteering. “During our discussion, Angela mentioned she played the flute, among other instruments, and wondered if we could use her talents during the summer while she was in town,” said Sandy Cody, volunteer services supervisor at LifePath Hospice. “We created a schedule that allowed her to visit our hospice houses and other locations. Angela played music for more than 150 patients, as well as for attendees at one of the Circle of Love Center’s Summer Saturday events.”

Angela was so touched by her experience that she returns each month for a weekend to play for patients at one of LifePath Hospice’s locations.

In addition to patients and families appreciating her music, the following is a comment from a nurse with LifePath Hospice who listened to her play in a facility:

“Our volunteer musician turned a very heartbreakingly sad awful day into something a little magical. What a gift! She just played a lullaby … (go to sleep and goodnight) … just amazing. (I’m hiding in a tiny office crying).”

When Sandy read the visitation note from Angela about this visit, she had a sense of what her music must have meant to all those present. Here are the comments Angela then wrote:

“(The patient) woke up and smiled as I was about to leave. She opened her eyes for a second when I first started to play during my visit.”

Of her time with hospice, Angela shared, “I wish I had come sooner, because it has really been enjoyable to volunteer at the various facilities.”

LifePath Hospice wished Angela had come sooner too, but everyone is so grateful she came and returns to share her talent.


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