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Let’s break the stereotypes: What's Chaplaincy all about?

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Chaplain blog 1:
Reverend David Southall shares his story of helping a family cope with the loss of a loved one

OK, let’s make a deal at the start. I will never see you as this…

Chaplain blog_nurse

…if you don’t see me as this…

Chaplain blog_Chaplain


This is my first post here so let’s get it straight. I am an NHS Chaplain and if you meet me in the corridor I won’t:

  • Stop and pray for your soul
  • Speak in a ‘vicary’ voice
  • Ask about your eternal salvation
  • Or try to convert you to my religion.

But I probably will:

  • Smile at you
  • Ask how you are doing
  • Maybe swear (depending on how well I know you and what I’ve seen that day)
  • And, most importantly, I will listen

I know these are crass stereotypes; you are not the officious Hattie Jaques Matron or an “Angel” or an uncaring nurse in it for the money.

And I am not a religious freak. Just a motorcycling husband and Dad who loves to go horseriding, and fishing, and likes to have fun and laugh.

We are just human beings trying to do the best we can for our patients, their loved ones and our colleagues: physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Sometimes we are at our best; sometimes, the challenges we face in our own lives mean we are the opposite. Either way I am me and you are you.

In these posts I really hope to provide an insight into Chaplaincy; and resources for all of us to be better equipped at providing spiritual and religious care for our patients. So there will be time to list some pointers to giving good spiritual care; providing an outline of models for spiritual assessment; and all that other stuff.


But for now, all we need is a story.

It was 3:30 am on a Mothering Sunday a couple of years ago when I was called to one of our hospitals a 40 minute drive away. I scraped the ice off the car and drove, bleary-eyed to the site. The hospital was quiet and dim; it felt so different from in the daylight. And in the side room was a man, his daughter and son, and his wife about to take her last breaths of this life. Now people die every day in our hospitals; but for this family it will only ever happen once. Only once will the husband lose his wife and the children lose their mother.

They weren’t religious (not many of the people I see are) but they were fellow human beings experiencing one of the critical moments of their lives. And so I sat with them and listened. Initially about her collapse whilst gardening; and then the last few days of hope and hopes dashed. And then their stories turned to all her achievements; how grateful they were to have known her love; and the funny things that made her a unique person.

They asked me to pray; I was now part of this family drama, if only for a short while. So I said some words; acknowledging her uniqueness; recognising her special qualities; uttering some good thoughts for her family and sensing the proximity of the end.

And then, as if that was enough, she was gone. Silence.

Did it make a difference?

Was it spiritual care?

Should I have stayed in bed?

Well the husband emailed me a few days later and asked me to put his letter on my Chaplain’s Blog at

His words, even now, bring back the memories of that cold Mother’s Day in the early morning:

“Hello David,

On behalf of my son P and my daughter H, and myself, I am writing to thank you most sincerely for coming over to the hospital in the early hours of that Sunday morning, ironically Mothering Sunday, as their mother (and my beloved wife) slipped away from us for ever.

Although not overly religious for most of her life, I think L may have had some premonition that the end was coming sooner than expected. P, H,and I found your presence to be very comforting at that very sad and distressing time and we thank you for the prayers you said at her bedside.

Although you will probably say that it “goes with the territory”, we are nevertheless extremely grateful to you for turning out in the middle of the night, when we were in the middle of that very cold snap of weather.

Life for us all will never be the same again; it never can be but, with the funeral over, our lives are now gradually starting to move in a new direction. For me, it is a challenge; the forging of a new life, a life on my own, something I have never experienced before. Once again, our most sincere thanks to you.

Kind Regards,

You can read more stories of spiritual care on my Chaplains blog at; or you can follow my group @WeChaplains for resources and interaction on spiritual care.

I’d love to have your comments or stories and hope that together we can raise the profile of spiritual care within our NHS. Please use the comments section below to share your experiences.






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Readers' comments (1)

  • I am a rabbi and chaplain at a university-associated community hospital in the US (Indiana). I came across this while preparing for a nursing workshop on spirituality, and have to say, it is much the same on this side of the pond.

    One of my greatest frustrations is that people don't know what chaplains do. When the nurse asks a family member whether they would like to see the chaplain, most often the response is "no,"--and usually followed by, "I'm not religious," or "I have my own pastor."

    At our hospital we have a packet to be given to a family member when a loved one dies. I was notified of the death and asked whether there was family present. "Yes, but they don't want a chaplain. I already asked." "Okay," I said, "But I still need to give them this info." So I got to the unit, and the secretary repeated that they didn't want to see a chaplain. I asked whether he would be willing to deliver the packet and he declined and suggested the nurse. I found the nurse and, as expected, she had a mountain of paperwork which had to be completed before she could do anything else. So I gathered my courage, knocked on the door, said, "I understand you don't want to see a chaplain, but we do have these materials for you." I left the room well over an hour later, after being shown dozens of family pictures and regaled with stories. So much for their not wanting to see a chaplain!

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