In curacy, we are allowed to spend some time each year out of our normal routines, experiencing ministry in a different context. After some thought, I decided that I would love to do a placement with the Spiritual Care Team at Alder Hey children’s hospital. I’ve done a couple of hospital chaplaincy placements before and I have found it to be a really rewarding form of ministry. Increasingly, I love working with children and families, and so I thought that Alder Hey would be a good way to combine those things.
As soon as church finished on Sunday, I felt nervous about what would happen the next morning. One question loomed large in my mind: how on earth would I be of any help to a family if something terrible happened?
Nevertheless, Monday morning came and upon walking into the main entrance, my first thought was: this does not feel like a hospital.
Cinderella was playing on a giant TV in front of a pile of bean bags, there was no clinical hospital smell and on the whole, people seemed cheery.
In the middle of the space, there were the giant metal trunk and branches of a tree and on top of it, there was a large structure like a tree house. I realised that that was where I was headed.
As soon as I got to the chaplaincy, or Sanctuary, I was made to feel very welcome. Over a cuppa, I asked lots of questions and couldn’t wait to get started.
That day, we went down to the bereavement suites and met a lady from the bereavement team. Often, the chaplains work closely with the team here. These suites are designed to be a comfortable and comforting space to bereaved families where they can receive as much support as they need, have meetings, and say goodbye to their child.
What those families go though is just unimaginably awful, completely beyond my comprehension. But I am so pleased that in those dark times, there is a lovely space just for the people who need it.
On Tuesday, I had a tour of the rest of the hospital. Unlike other hospitals, most of the wards in Alder Hey consist of individual cubicles. This means that children feel like they are in a bedroom rather than a dorm. It also means that infection is massively reduced, which is wonderful.
However, for the Spiritual Care Team, this makes visiting difficult. There is a big difference between wandering onto a bay of 6 beds and saying ‘hiya everyone, how are you today? I’m from the chaplaincy team and I’m just here to say hi’, and walking uninvited into an individual cubicle.
So, the SC Team have great literature available and they use the prayer requests left on the prayer leaf inside the chapel to make contact with families and patients.
On Wednesday I did a lot of chatting! Up until that point, I had learned much but as the hospital is fairly quiet at this time of year, I hadn’t met many people.
I met two mothers and a father who had previously received care from the SC Team following the death of their little ones.
These people all greeted the chaplains with smiles and real warmth, clearly fond of them and grateful for how they had been looked after by them. They were honest about how they were, and seemed grateful for a chat. A comment that struck me came from one of the Mums: ‘the pain doesn’t get less but I am learning to live with it’.
What a wonderful thing hospital chaplaincy is. It is an opportunity to be alongside families in their darkest moments and to form real bonds with people that stand the test of time.
Later that day, I saw a seven year old boy who has recently had a brain tumour removed. Despite having temporarily lost his speech after the op, he was full of character. His Dad showed us a video of his son sat in a hospital bed just before he went to theatre saying the Lord’s Prayer and asking God to keep him safe. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Thursday was mostly taken up with a trip to Bishop’s Lodge to meet with other secular chaplains. There were so many! I was really inspired to see how many people choose to minister in Chaplaincy. There is a Christian presence in all kinds of places, from retail, to schools, to hospitals, to prisons, to railways!
Although they have their own pressures and politics to handle, secular chaplains are out of parish at the coal face of ministry, being a presence and a light in some intense, difficult and challenging environments.
On the final day of placement, I did a lot of thinking about that big question: Why?
Why is it that some families lose their precious children in the most tragic of circumstances? Sadly, there is no answer. For several millennia, the human race has been contemplating this, but we don’t have an answer, which is why it’s called The Problem of Evil.
The Chaplain at Alder Hey has written a booklet about caring for families after the death of a child. It highlights the importance of just being with people in these times, without any clever answers of pithy sayings. All we can do, as ministers, as Christians, as people, is to be there. I have seen families who have really benefited from the gentle and caring presence of the chaplains, and it really is a tiny light in a great big darkness.
This is why chaplaincy is not just important, but essential. In those times and places where people suffer, it is vital that we as a church equip, encourage and enable people to shine that light.