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Faith in the face of the finale

Wesley Hospital palliative care chaplain Linda McWilliam with patient Margaret Chapman. Photo by Osker Lau
FROM ANGER to acceptance, there is no right way to react when you have been told you or a loved one has a terminal illness.
In the face of that reality, faith is one of the aspects of life that often comes to the surface.

Linda McWilliam is a palliative care chaplain at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane.

She said while people deal with the realisation of terminal illness very differently, not all people confront issues of death.

“They still hold on to the hope that there is going to be some miracle or something is going to change.

“I think the people who deal with it in that way don’t examine their faith as much as those who are stunned and shocked by the diagnosis, who haven’t really paid much attention to their spiritual journey.

“When they actually get to know somebody who offers to support them in that way, who isn’t intrusive, they begin to ask some questions or even begin to accept the nature of spiritual care.

“Sometimes the religious barriers get broken down and people begin to form a relationship and then begin to explore things like prayer or blessing.”

Rosalyn Smaill is the Uniting Church ministry agent in Toogoolawah, Esk and Moore as well as a Blue Care chaplain for the Alkira Aged Care facility in the Brisbane Valley.

Ms Smaill said some of the aged care residents are very aware of the time they have left.

“They are all very conscious of the fact that their days are limited,” she said.

Being the chaplain in such a place gives her contact with many people who may otherwise avoid spiritual care.

Ms Smaill visited one resident in hospital after a bad turn. The patient had said she did not want to be visited by a minister of her denomination.

“As I’m a pastor and I had spent quite a bit of time with her I didn’t feel that exclusion included me,” she said.

“She said to me… she was afraid of dying because she knew she was going to hell.

“I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her and when we had finished she said, ‘God doesn’t want anything to do with me’. And I said ‘But you just asked him for forgiveness didn’t you?’

“She said ‘yes’, and I said, ‘you meant it?’ And she said ‘yes’.

“So I said God had forgiven her and the change in that lady was absolutely remarkable.

“She lived for another three to four months and she turned in to a real evangelist.

“If any of the staff were grumbling she would tell them they should be thanking God that they had another day on this earth, that it was a wonderful gift he had given them.

“She was thanking God for every day that he gave her from that point on.”

Ms Smaill does not see the aged care residents differently from the members of her congregations.

She listens and supports them all.

“I have as much likelihood, I guess, of losing someone in the congregation as losing someone from Alkira because we don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.

“Each time I am with a person I endeavour to encourage them.”

Ms McWilliam said the spiritual searching of a dying person often inspires or encourages family members to look at their own lives when faced with the reality of death.

“For people who haven’t had a faith background or haven’t thought much about God… having somebody who forms a relationship with them that is comfortable, they begin to explore their understanding of God and what that might mean for them,” said Ms McWilliam.

“At times it flows on to the family as well. They begin to see the work that the dying person is doing and they begin to feel the peace.”

Photo : Wesley Hospital palliative care chaplain Linda McWilliam with patient Margaret Chapman. Photo by Osker Lau