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Ministering to the dying and those behind bars... meet cleric Graham Stockdale who’s chaplain at hospice and a prison

Rev Graham Stockdale may have a superstar rugby player son, but in his work as a hospice and prison chaplain he meets people during the greatest trials of their lives. He tells Judith Cole why it is such a privilege

We are not here to talk about rugby. But Rev Graham Stockdale is suspicious. "When you called, I thought: 'This must have something to do with Jacob'." This sentiment is justified, for Jacob, the clergyman's 21-year-old son, is the new star of the sport, having been selected to play for Ireland earlier this year. And on Saturday he was one of the try scorers in Ireland's 38-3 hammering of South Africa in Dublin.

But it is also a measure of the modesty of Jacob's softly spoken father that he didn't think his line of work - wholly independent of his superstar son - was worthy of note.

Rev Stockdale balances two contrasting chaplaincy jobs, one at Southern Area Hospice Services in Newry and the other at Maghaberry and Hydebank Prisons. Both very different, but in both he shares with people what can be the most profound moments of their lives. A former Presbyterian minister, Rev Stockdale never imagined he would be working in environments such as these.

He grew up in Antrim and as part of a Christian family attended church and all sorts of associated youth activities. He made a profession of faith at the age of nine and from his teenage years felt a sense of calling to full-time ministry of some sort. His parents were a strong influence - his 82-year-old dad Ivan still goes to youth camps and "does the jobs nobody wants to do, like getting the milk and washing pots and pans".

After school - which, by the way, included playing rugby for Ballyclare High's first XV like his dad before him - Rev Stockdale headed to Manchester to study humanities, and then worked for London City Mission. He went on to study theology in Philadelphia and during this four-year course decided to apply for the Presbyterian ministry. Work quickly followed, at Shankill Road Mission, Newtownstewart and Gortin, and then Edengrove Presbyterian in Ballynahinch.

However, while he enjoyed the work he was becoming frustrated with the increasing time he had to spend in meetings, which encroached upon one-to-one opportunities with people. So, after resigning from Edengrove he took up a post at Eglinton Presbyterian in north Belfast, which afforded the potential to develop initiatives in the community.

He explains: "I worked in the Westland estate and started some simple things, like taking the church minibus around and taking the teenage lads to play football. We started a Sunday School in the community centre and Christians Against Poverty money management programmes."

When this post came to an end Rev Stockdale knew he would not return to congregational ministry and was unemployed for a few weeks when his wife Janine, a midwifery lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, who was visiting Norway for work, spotted an ad in the online NI Jobfinder for a chaplain at Newry hospice.

"I applied and got the job - and although I went in very green, it has grown in the six years I've been there," he says.

Rev Stockdale shares the rota with two other chaplains from the Church of Ireland and Catholic Church. The chaplains were hired, he says, not because of their differing denominations - it just happened to work out that way.

"The biggest learning curve has been the generic nature of the chaplaincy, to learn how to minister appropriately to those who are not from my own tradition," he says. "But I learn a lot from my colleagues, and that works both ways."

The most important parts of the job, of course, are those deeply personal moments with patients and their families.

"As chaplain you are journeying with the patient and their family," he reflects.

"You're recognising that when the patient comes in for end of life care, there's a limitation but it's trying to make their life the best it can be for that limited period.

"It's facilitating the opportunity for the patient to talk about things, including things which they might find difficult talking about to their family. While people are often prepared to die, there are questions such as how will my partner cope, how will my children cope. And it's the things they won't see, like the father who won't be able to walk his daughter down the aisle."

While the nature of the job means that the work is not always routine, the chaplains follow standard practices to make sure every patient can receive this support should they wish to.

"One of the first things I do when I come in to the hospice is assess how the patients are," Rev Stockdale says. "My top priority is anyone who is what we call 'actively dying', that is, a person for whom death is expected perhaps within 24 hours. I check with the nursing staff how the patient has been overnight, I check the handover notes that the other chaplain left from the previous day if I wasn't in, and this might include anything that I need to be aware of or be cautious about before going in to see the patient and family.

"Sometimes a specific spiritual or religious input is needed, and if it's from the Catholic tradition I check if the patient has been anointed by their own priest or a parish priest. But primarily it's to provide emotional support to the patient and family.

"Another situation could be that the patients are fairly stable. So I find out if anybody has come in during the last 24 hours and hasn't been seen by the chaplain, and I make sure from the nursing notes that it's OK for the chaplain to visit. Occasionally they might indicate that they would prefer not to see a chaplain - they may be humanist or it may be because they are very religious and want support from their own priest, minister or pastor. It's important to check, as you don't want to do anything that will be a further challenge to what the patient is already dealing with."

Rev Stockdale finds that patients may be fearful about staying at the hospice but once they get there they really appreciate the bright, peaceful atmosphere and the support of the multidisciplinary staff. This, too, is vital for the families who may be experiencing the most difficult and emotional moments of their lives.

"If a patient has been admitted at the end of life there can be a downward trajectory, so during that journey I may be ministering more to the family than to the patient," Rev Stockdale explains. "But it is essential to always be aware that, even if the patient appears unresponsive, their listening capability may still be there.

"Perhaps when I come in to work there has been a death overnight, and perhaps the family are still there in the hospice. So they might like to have a service in the room or they might like to return for a service in the hospice later."

Assistance for families and friends is offered long after a loved one has passed away: this includes bereavement support groups and services such as Light up a Life and the Dromatine Retreat Centre remembrance service for anyone who has lost a loved one in the previous year.

Chaplaincy at Her Majesty's prisons has some similarities to hospice work; for example, Rev Stockdale visits new intakes and is available for counselling and any support he can give. However, at the prisons he is specifically a Presbyterian chaplain, which means he visits anyone who has stated they are Presbyterian.

"I also make myself available to visit everybody whether from a different tradition or faith," he adds. "All the chaplains take it in turn to visit all the committals - those who have just come in in the last 24 hours, just to make them aware that a chaplain works in the prison.

"Sometimes the person is very shocked, maybe it's their first time in prison, so we reassure them that we are available to listen. Sometimes we are asked for practical help - 'Can you phone somebody for me?'. Sometimes it is spiritual - 'Can you get a Bible for me?'.

"And we can provide literature relating to other faiths. Increasingly there are Muslims in the prisons and we can get a copy of the Koran or a prayer mat if they ask for it.

"Once a month I take my turn to do a very informal worship service. A choir has been started up in Maghaberry by church folks who come in, and we run the eight-week alpha course on a regular basis.

"At Maghaberry recently, one of the 20 who turned up to the course said that he had come as an atheist determined to argue, but he left open to the possibility of God."

Another difference in his two work settings are that in hospice work Rev Stockdale finds out as much as he can about a patient before visiting them. However, he discovered that this is not always helpful in a prison situation.

"When I started working at the prisons I tried to find out as much as I could about the person but that sometimes coloured my opinion of them," he says. "Now I tend not to, but after a visit I sometimes need to check up on certain things depending on what the conversation has been about."

Ongoing contact with prisoners can occur after release. Recently Rev Stockdale, with help from Hill Street Presbyterian Church in Lurgan, which he attends, was able to find a bed for a man with whom he'd built up a good relationship in Maghaberry.

It is no surprise to discover that the preferred method of relaxation for the Stockdale family - which also includes daughters Hannah (24), who works in media design, and Lydia (17) - is watching Ulster play at Ravenhill.

"My dad always took us to the internationals in Dublin once a year, which was a big trip in those days," says Rev Stockdale.

"Then he bought Jacob a rugby ball when he was born, and that was it. He started mini rugby in Ballynahinch when I was minister there, and was involved in schools rugby at Wallace High."

Jacob was invited into the Ulster Rugby academy on leaving school and made his senior Ulster debut at the age of 19. After playing for Ireland Under-20s, the whole family was waiting anxiously to hear whether he was chosen for the senior team's summer tour in the US this year.

"He played a trick on us," says Rev Stockdale. "We have a WhatsApp family group and we were waiting all day to hear news. Then he put in a comment saying: 'It's bad news'. So we replied: 'Oh, don't worry Jacob, you'll make it next time… maybe it was too soon'. We were giving him all this supportive advice, which he enjoyed reading, and only then he said: 'It's bad news because you'll not see me for three-and-a-half weeks'.

"So yes, a big part of our life is watching rugby. Friday night is a great family night out - as long as Ulster win, of course."

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