Shirley Kelter, Chaplain

Shirley Kelter, ChaplainBeing a chaplain, for me, begins with hospitality. When I am meeting with a patient (adult or child) or a family member, I want to create a safe, comfortable, welcoming space. I want to extend warmth and compassion, joy when applicable, and humor when needed. Not everyone asks for a chaplain visit—we are sometimes referred to a patient by staff or are called automatically in critical cases. In these situations, I know I have around 30 seconds to make an impression that builds trust and overcomes any barriers (some people presume chaplains have a religious agenda, or that we only deliver bad news). 


When a chaplain visit is requested directly by a patient or family member, there is a ready openness or desire for comfort and support. While many people think chaplains work only with people who claim religion or spirituality is important to them, we are available for everyone.


Spirituality is much broader than religious beliefs or practices, and encompasses relationships, decisions, emotions, fears, passions, work—pretty much everything in our lives. One memorable visit for me was with a patient who identified as an atheist and poetically shared his love of cranes, which clearly filled his spirit. Images of nature and wildlife were particularly comforting for him. I pointed him to the TV station that offers calming music and nature photos and videos. He responded appreciatively to have something so beautiful to see and hear, right in his hospital room. That’s what spiritual care can look like. It’s about helping a person identify and access the spiritual strengths and resources they possess that can help them navigate their hospital stay, chronic illness, or end of life process. It could also look like praying with a patient, or baptizing, or listening to their fears.


I once heard chaplains referred to as “story catchers,” which delighted me, because this is a wonderful and privileged part of our work. People trust us, and gift us with stories of joy, pain, regret, hope, and love. We hold and honor their stories, and try to help them find meaning in them. Children are especially interesting storytellers!


Helping a patient and family at the end of life is a rewarding aspect of my job because I have also been a hospice chaplain. In an acute care setting where death might come suddenly or unexpectedly, it can be incredibly difficult to bear.  Supporting a family might involve helping them transition from desperately wanting their loved one to survive, to accepting that death is impending, and now re-focusing their energy on helping their loved one die peacefully and surrounded by love. Sometimes families will request a chaplain’s presence when life support is being withdrawn from their loved one. I might silently stand with them, or offer a prayer if they wish, but I am fully present, and I try to guide them through the experience so that their grief also contains memories of love and care from those final days, hours or minutes.


An important focus of chaplaincy is being a caring presence to the people we accompany. Chaplains bring calm to a crisis, a steady presence in the face of fear or sorrow. Recently I offered this to grieving parents whose infant had unexpectedly died: “There are probably no words I can say to soothe your sadness and anger, but I will not leave your side while you are going through this.” I also offer this presence to patients who are not conscious, or babies who are too tiny to understand our words. It is a presence imbued with a compassionate, prayerful, and loving energy for the one I’m with.


I appreciate and believe in the benefits of a holistic approach to healing that includes physical, emotional and spiritual interventions, and I feel privileged to serve adults and children here as a chaplain. It’s truly an honor to be “let in” to people’s lives during their challenging and often critical moments, to be trusted, and to be able to offer comfort, strength, and hope. I have witnessed great acts of love, and been changed by them. Each day when I head home, I know I have made at least one person’s load a little lighter, and I feel grateful to be a listener, a comforter, a connection to the sacred, a story catcher, a caring presence—a chaplain.


- Shirley Kelter, Chaplain