Caleb Harms has a warm, calming presence that has served him well in his decades of work as a hospice chaplain. While he is quick to share stories of his own, his first instinct is to find a connection with everyone he meets. After that, it is all about listening. What he likes most about his job is that he has no agenda.
“I am there to be and do whatever they would like, whether it be for the patient or family members,” he said.
Harms has been ordained for over thirty years and has worked for Enhabit Home Health & Hospice since 2020.
When he reflected on how he ended up working in hospice, Harms recalled that the seed was planted many years ago. When he graduated from seminary, Harms had a friend who was a hospice chaplain. As his friend shared stories about his experience, he began to consider whether working in hospice might be in his future.
As Harms moved to a new city years later, he asked the same friend for help finding a job.
“It just all fell into place,” he said.
He has been working with hospice patients and their loved ones ever since.
Setting a strong foundation
The hospice environment can sometimes be in stark contrast to today’s fast-paced world. For Harms especially, it’s important not to be in a hurry with patients and their loved ones.
“The more time I spend that first visit, the better the relationship will be in the long run.”
“The more time I spend that first visit, the better the relationship will be in the long run,” he said.
Harms makes sure he takes his time, focuses on listening and doesn’t make any assumptions about his patients or their loved ones.
“For those of us who have worked in hospice for a long time, it’s hard to not go into the ‘this is what you do’ mode,” he admitted.
Harms always reminds himself that this may be the first time a family has experienced hospice. To meet patients and families where they are, his philosophy is to approach each patient’s hospice journey as if they are experiencing it for the very first time.
Working with families
“I’m always trying to remember that this is an opportunity for a family to get as prepared as one can, as best as one can,” Harms said.
If there’s one thing Harms has learned as a hospice chaplain, it’s that although we all know the end of life is coming, we can never be truly ready.
When a person enters hospice care, the grieving process typically begins. Anticipatory grief usually starts while the patient is still alive.
“Then, when they die, they are at peace,” he said. “It’s not that there’s not pain, but the family is more at peace.”
Harms remembered the first visit he made to a specific patient’s home. He remembers this patient greeting him by his first name and saying, “I’m so glad you’re here!”
That’s not the reception Harms is accustomed to receiving from working in hospice, but he was happy to get such a warm welcome.
Harms recalled that the patient’s husband and three daughters were sitting together at a table. Before he had the chance to introduce himself, the patient expressed her gratitude for his situation.
“I’m so glad to be in hospice care because now I have the opportunity, because I know I am going to die, to tell everybody what I need to tell them,” the patient shared.
This experience taught Harms about the hospice journey. He has found that hospice provides patients with the opportunity to tell people they love them. It also provides an opportunity for forgiveness — whether the patient needs to be forgiven or they need to forgive someone else.
In Harms’s experience, a person coming into hospice care usually knows they are dying. While patients may never say it out loud, he feels that they know their bodies better than anyone else. And while hospice is a positive experience for many families, at times it can be incredibly difficult for a patient’s loved ones. Harms tries to address this directly during his visits.
“It’s important to name it,” he mentioned. “There’s nothing good about cancer. There’s nothing good about Alzheimer’s. There’s nothing good about temporal dementia. This is just a terrible time.”
An amazing opportunity
During Harms’s time as a chaplain, he has worked with patients and their loved ones representing all belief systems. Just as there are misconceptions about hospice, there are also misconceptions about what a chaplain does.
Harms finds patients and their loved ones can sometimes be angry at God, angry at their church or feel as though God has abandoned them. Or, in some cases, Harms feels as if he represents every bad preacher, pastor, rabbi or imam they have ever had.
To counter these feelings, Harms works to make sure patients and their families realize that he is there with them, wherever they are in their struggles. When he meets patients for the first time, he makes it clear that they are in the driver’s seat.
“I don’t want to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” he shared. Instead, he leads with, “It’s up to you. What would you like?”
For some patients, Harms comes to the home every week. For others, it’s every other week or even once a month.
He finds that almost every family, at some point, shares the same sentiment: “Oh, your work must be so depressing.”
Each and every time, Harms responds the same way: “No, actually, it’s wonderful because I get to meet amazing people like you.”
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