EACH's chaplain - finding strength through weakness

EACH’s chaplain provides spiritual care for children and their families at the most difficult time. This is her story

By Tim Gibson

Alex South knows that some of her own experience of disability enables her to connect gently and empathically with children and young people who spend time at the Treehouse.

    EACH’s chaplain says that her weakness maybe her strength when it comes to offering spiritual care for children...  

Ever modest, EACH’s chaplain says that her weakness maybe her strength when it comes to offering spiritual care for children supported by the charity and their loved ones. She has a neurodegenerative condition, meaning she has to walk with the aid of a trolley.

And by showing her vulnerability to people who are facing tough challenges, she believes she can foster a connection and help them find strength.

“We all have our weaknesses,” Alex remarks. “We’re all carrying something, and when children and their families first meet me they often ask what’s wrong with me. It sounds odd, but seeing that I’m not in perfect physical health helps break down barriers. It gives us common ground on which to build relationships of trust.”

Building such relationships is precisely what Alex is there to do. On the day we meet her, she has been working with a family whose child recently died. It’s one of the most difficult parts of her job, but also among the most rewarding.

“We take a very broad attitude to spiritual care at EACH,” she says. “While I have a very strong Christian faith, I adopt a neutral approach with children and their families. The aim is to respect every tradition, regardless of the faith position it reflects.

“If a family has a ritual or a belief that helps them make sense of what’s going on, we honour it and help them to enact it.”

That is what Alex means when she talks about the trust that is essential to her role. “It is vital that people know they can rely on the chaplaincy team to respect their wishes,” she says. “Everyone deals with the challenge of a child’s diagnosis in their own way. Our job is to create the space for that to happen.”

Space is at the very heart of EACH’s chaplaincy provision. When Alex took on a project to explore the charity’s provision of spiritual care after working for years as a nurse and care team manager, she developed a clear idea of what was needed.

    We’re about so much more than treating symptoms and managing pain. We want children to live every second of their lives,...  

“I felt very strongly that we needed a room of our own. A space in which to hold people’s spirituality, whatever form it takes. Somewhere where children, their loved ones and staff can come to pause awhile, process their experiences, and try to make sense of things.”

So it was that The Haven was born. This is a room at the very heart of The Treehouse, EACH’s Ipswich hospice, deliberately set aside for chaplaincy work.

“The Haven often stands empty,” says Alex. “But that’s the point of it. It’s a room that people know is theirs for when they need some quiet time. If they want to use it, it’s available, free from other bookings. A place of stillness and calm.

“We provide a variety of resources that reflect different world religions, as well as humanism. There are comfortable chairs and candles to light. It is a safe space. Somewhere to draw breath. For many, it’s where they go to find their strength.”

Alex is understandably proud of The Haven, and pleased that similar spaces have been created at EACH’s other hospices. Step inside and you’ll see why: it’s a special place, shot through with the memories, hopes and fears of children, their loved ones and hospice staff. A place of becoming and growing, of pain and loss, of hope and sorrow.

“Spiritual care is very much about the whole person,” says Alex. “It is an important feature of the holistic approach that defines EACH and the hospice movement more widely. We’re about so much more than treating symptoms and managing pain. We want children to live every second of their lives, no matter how much time they have left.”

Such a conviction clearly drives Alex to develop EACH’s chaplaincy offering. As well as her own work with children, families and staff, she coordinates a team of volunteer chaplains who work across hospices. These are drawn from local faith communities and engage regularly with the EACH community. That way, says Alex, when they are called upon to offer pastoral care, they’re already well known and trusted by the people to whom they minister.

“Relationship building is at the heart of effective chaplaincy,” she says. “That involves a big investment of time, and of oneself. But it’s worth it, because the connections we make with people are profound and life-changing for us all.

“I feel as if I’m always growing in this job. It helps me make sense of who I am. I like to think it provides some hope to other people, even when they’re dealing with the most difficult circumstances. We’re all of us weak, all of us flawed. But by sharing together in the spiritual side of life, I believe we’re all made stronger.”

Published: 13 November 2019

© 2019 Just Recruitment Group Ltd

Just Recruitment is sponsoring EACH’s “Happy Christmas Ipswich” comedy evening, hosted by Griff Rhys Jones. To support the event or donate to EACH, please click here.

If you enjoyed this article, you may like: Where the light shines in

You may also enjoy: When words run out: meet EACH’s art therapist

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