“Dying isn’t just a physical process” – Spiritual Care Awareness Month 2022

Sophie Van Walwyk is Head of Psychosocial, Wellbeing and Bereavement Services at Pilgrims Hospices.

She introduces Pilgrims’ Spiritual Care Awareness Month, explains how and where spiritual care fits within hospice care, and shares what spirituality means to her personally.

What does your role involve and how did you come to it?

In my role at Pilgrims, I’m responsible for our social workers, counsellors and spiritual care leads across our three hospice sites. I also oversee Pilgrims Therapy Centres, wellbeing services and bereavement care.

I joined Pilgrims in 2015, originally as a palliative social worker at our Thanet hospice. I’d worked closely with the hospice in my previous role with the local authority; learning more about the care and support offered at Pilgrims, I recognised I wanted to also support individuals who were facing the end of their life.

When someone receives a palliative diagnosis, it can be a frightening and sad time for them and their loved ones. Helping people adjust to and cope with the challenges they are facing is fundamental to hospice care – dying isn’t just a physical process, it is also a psychological, social and spiritual experience. It’s important to recognise a person’s individual needs and care for all of these in the same way we would treat their physical symptoms.

Treating the whole person is the best part of hospice care. Helping people understand what is important to them at the end of their life, and enabling and empowering them to live as well as possible for as long as possible, is such a rewarding part of my role.

What does spirituality mean to you?

Spirituality means different things to different people and it can change over time and in different situations. Traditionally, spirituality was based very much around religious beliefs and rituals, but modern spirituality has become a blend of religious beliefs, humanistic psychology and mystical or obscure traditions.

Spiritual needs can include:

  • The need to feel hope, peace and gratitude
  • The need for meaning and purpose in our lives
  • The need to feel a sense of belonging
  • The need to love and feel loved

People do different things to meet their spiritual needs, depending on what is important to them. For some this may be through prayer and worship, but it’s important to understand that our spiritual needs can also be met in other ways. These may include being with family and friends, spending time in nature, or through interests and hobbies.

For me, spirituality is how I make sense of myself, the world around me and my place and purpose in it. When I first started to explore my own spirituality, I had more questions than answers, and as I continue on my spiritual journey I often still do! But that’s how spiritual growth works; it helps you to question things about yourself and the world, and to accept things about them. It’s sometimes hard to describe what spirituality feels like, because that’s what it is – a feeling deep within you, a sense of inner calm and peace that only you can feel and understand.

We do have to give time and attention to our own spiritual growth though, it’s not something we can sit back and expect to happen. We have to work at it, by opening our minds and hearts and exploring different ways that may help us to care for ourselves spiritually.

I find being close to nature helps me to tune into my own spirituality, as it brings a sense of stillness and calm. It encourages me to slow both my body and mind, to simply be in the moment, and appreciate the beauty all around me.

What role does spiritual care play in hospice care and why is it important?

Spiritual distress or pain can happen when people are unable to find meaning, hope, love, peace, comfort, strength or connection in their life.

Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, taught us about total pain at the end of life – meaning that a person can feel not only physical pain, but also psychological, social and spiritual pain. We must recognise each of these elements that an individual may be experiencing, and support these needs with the same level of care we give to managing physical pain and symptoms.

When an individual is facing the end of their life, it’s natural that they may want to reflect on the meaning of their life – perhaps for the first time, or at a deeper level than they have done before. They may also want to think about death, loss and grief in new ways.

I’m delighted to be involved with Pilgrims’ Spiritual Care Awareness Month celebrating this vital part of hospice care.

Pilgrims Hospices celebrated Spiritual Care Awareness Month throughout January 2022, showcasing the many ways that spiritual care can make a positive difference to patients, their families, carers and loved ones.

Click here to find out more.

There’s much more to death than we think; what if it isn’t just an ending, but an event we can plan for? Thinking beyond the four walls of hospices and hospitals, we have the chance to approach it with confidence and plan a good death. After Wards is a collection of insights and ideas from people who can help us all to re-imagine this essential part of life, and to live well until we die.

Continue the conversation at our Time to Talk events with film screenings, poetry readings, Death Cafes and much more.