Being a hospice chaplain calls for plenty of life experience

9 Jacquie Ryan web

Sr Jacqui Ryan, OP, is keen to debunk the myth that hospices are sad and gloomy places.

Sure, sadness is inevitable when a loved one is coming to the end of his or her journey, but there is often “a sense of humour and joy” around the place, she said.

“My overall sense is that hospice is a welcoming place of compassion and care, and that the patient’s needs are absolutely number one priority,” she said.

Sr Jacqui has worked as the spiritual carer at the Harbour Hospice on the North Shore for the last eight years. She has recently retired.

“It’s time to move on. After eight years, I found that my energies for the job weren’t as great as they were when I started. I think it’s time for me to move on,” she said.

Charlie chaplain

Sr Jacqui is fondly called “Charlie”, a nickname she earned when a patient who was introducing her to his wife forgot her (Sr Jacqui’s) name.

“He said, ‘oh, you know, the Charlie chaplain’,” she recalled with a laugh. Charlie Chaplin, of course, is the iconic comedian from the silent film era.

Since then, everyone teasingly called her Charlie.

“Sometimes people called me the God-botherer, someone who’s bothering God on their account. ‘Here comes the God-botherer’,” she said. ‘But I just say to myself, it’s okay. If that’s what you want to call me, it’s fine if it puts them at ease.”

She said that facing death can be an anxious experience, and it takes a whole team of people to ensure that the patients find peace and comfort.

“I have to say, not all people find that place of peace. Acceptance of what’s happening to you can be very difficult. A lot of people can find peace, but some don’t. I think there’s a sadness in that, but there’s also a reality that we’re all individuals. Our journey is individual.”

Sr Jacqui stressed this a lot, that every patient is an individual with his or her own unique journey, a journey in which she is privileged to accompany the patient.

“’Privilege’ . . . is a word that might be a bit overused, but it is an absolute privilege to accompany people,” she said.


Sr Jacqui recalled having another patient ask her to visit him later in the day. When she came back, she sat with him for a little while, but he didn’t say anything.

“I said to him, ‘you said you wanted to see me. Did you want to talk with me?’ He said, ‘no, I don’t want to talk to you. I just want you to be here with me in silence’,” she said.

She sat with him quietly, not knowing for how long he wanted her there. She said she must have stayed with him for about half an hour.

“Just as I was thinking I might have to get up and leave, he opened his eyes. He looked at me and he said, ‘that was the best thing I received today’. And I said, ‘what was the best thing?’ He said, “that you sat in silence with me. There were no questions. There were no words spoken. You gave me the opportunity to be with you in silence,” Sr Jacqui said.

She said she had never had that experience before.

There was another patient who had lost his faith after years working in a field that relied on intellect.

“He said to me, ‘I want to regain my faith again’. I said, ‘what would you like?’ He said, ‘I need to be reintroduced to what it means to be Christian.’ So, we worked on through some questions and we worked through some Scripture,” she said.

Sr Jacqui said that her work takes her to the most amazing places in people’s lives that not even their spouses or families are allowed in.

“That’s what I mean when I talk about privilege. It requires a deep sense of trust in me and from them, of course, to be able to come to that space,” she explained.

“And that’s when I know that this is the work of God. Because I can’t create that space, and that person can’t create that space, but God kind of helps to create that space between us.”


Sr Jacqui said that there are several myths that prevail around hospices.

The first myth that she wanted to debunk was that people go to hospices when they are about to die.

“We find that the earlier a person who has an end-of-life diagnosis comes to hospice, the greater the breadth of care we can give them,” she said. This would include pain management, physiotherapy, counselling, social work, as well as spiritual care.

She also clarified that hospices accept patients with all kinds of ailments, not just cancer.

Sr Jacqui also said that it is not a place only for old people, noting, sadly, that they do have patients in their 20s and 30s.

Their journey

Sr Jacqui said that she has looked after people with all kinds of beliefs. She said that her time in the interfaith and ecumenism commissions in Auckland diocese gave her experience and knowledge about different faith traditions.

“I don’t necessarily have to agree with what they are putting forward as their particular form of spirituality,” she said. “My job is to accompany them as they use that to come towards the end of their life, because the journey is about the patient. I can’t stress that enough really.”

She said that hospice chaplaincy was a wonderful ministry in which to be involved.

“I’m not sure it’s a ministry for a young person. You need plenty of life experience,” she mused.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. People often say to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ But I think we’re all given the skills we need to do the job, or to do the ministry that we’re called to.”

Sr Jacqui said that the people she will miss the most are those with whom she has worked for the past eight years. She also thanked the priests in the different parishes on the North Shore for always being available when the patients needed them.

She said that her work as a chaplain has strengthened her faith.

“I think you learn a lot about yourself as well in this work. You learn about what you’re capable of. Some questions challenged me. Or I’ll come away thinking, ‘I’ve never thought about that from that perspective before’. If you’re open, that could be quite a learning as well.”

For now, she is still involved in projects with the Dominican Sisters. But she said, she plans to “hibernate like a bear in winter”, and “see where the Spirit leads me”.

Photo: Sr Jacqui Ryan, OP (Photo: Harbour Hospice)

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Rowena Orejana

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