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“At Hospice I walk alongside our patients, and for the most part I am listening. It’s about connecting over what gives someone meaning and purpose, and that’s how I see spirituality.”

Zain is Hospice West Auckland’s Spiritual Advisor, a role dedicated to improving wellbeing and quality of life through nurturing all aspects of spirituality.

At the time the vacancy came up, Zain was working two very different jobs: lecturing on Religion and Theology at Auckland University, and working in a call centre with all of the sales targets and KPIs that came with it. Although a career change was completely unplanned, he quickly recognised the role at Hospice as an opportunity to do something he was very interested in and passionate about – and five years later his impact on the Hospice team, patients, carers and whānau has gone from strength to strength. He has continued his part-time role at university: “With lecturing on Religion and Theology you have the theory, and with Hospice it’s like putting it into practice – the best of both worlds.”

Hospice West Auckland Spiritual Advisor

Many people mistakenly confuse Zain’s role as being focused on religion. However, spirituality is not limited to religion, but encompasses anything that gives a person meaning and purpose. “For some people, spirituality is not linked to religion but it could be meditation, or fishing or something they are equally passionate about,” he explains. “I remember one gentlemen I visited was putting together a motorbike in his living room, so we didn’t talk about religion or spirituality explicitly, instead he would talk to me about this bike and his passion for racing – that’s what gave him meaning and purpose in life.”

The clinical and Social Care teams work closely together to identify which patients and whānau may benefit from the many different services provided, so there is a lot of cross-referral for services. As well as referrals from nurses and his fellow Social Care team members, Zain visits patients in hospital every week, chats to those who are visiting at Hospice House, and even phones new patients to see if he may be able to help. “During Covid lockdowns I delivered equipment to homes as a way of having contact with people. Any excuse to meet people and open up that conversation!” he smiles.

Every patient and situation is unique. “You never know what to expect,” says Zain. “They might not want to talk to you, and say thanks but no thanks. There’s always a sense of going into uncertain territory. But it’s also exciting.” Just this week he was caught up in birthday celebrations for a patient’s family member during a home visit – and found himself eating cake, singing happy birthday and laughing at the jokes being cracked. “And in the middle of all that I was trying to figure out where to take the conversation!” he laughs.

He recalls introducing himself to a lady during one of his regular hospital visits, whereby she proceeded to talk for 50 minutes straight. “Just with me saying Spiritual Advisor, she felt comfortable enough to open up and share her life story with me,” he explains. “Another time a gentleman told me flatly that he didn’t want to talk about religion, but I could stay if I told him a joke. Luckily I have a supply of dad jokes and I made him laugh, then he said I could stay. And that’s how our visits went: each time I would tell him a joke and he gradually began to share his story with me. We went on to have a very meaningful connection over some deeply personal experiences.”

Hospice West Auckland Spiritual Advisor

One of the most memorable people Zain has met during his time at Hospice was a lady in her 90’s who had learned to read and write at the age of 40. “She had a literacy certificate on her wall hanging next to a photo of her skydiving at the age of 60. At that point I thought, I may be the Spiritual Advisor but she is the one living life!”

Zain says he has learned a lot from his time at Hospice – he has reassessed how he lives life. “You learn a lot from the people and families you work with, it’s definitely a two-way exchange. That’s true of a lot of Hospice care, there is an exchange going on and at times it can be the patient who uplifts your spirits, which is amazing.”

There are several events that Zain runs for Hospice West Auckland, including a monthly gathering for carers. These popular sessions provide the opportunity to meet with other carers to share experiences, learn from each other and the Hospice team, and listen to a range of different relevant topics from guest presenters. He also organises bi-annual Remembrance Services, which bring people together to honour the memory of their loved ones. In more of an educational theme, he hosts the interactive webinar “Spiritual Care at End of Life”, a learning module adapted from Hospice New Zealand that is open to community providers across New Zealand. And in-house he facilitates reflection sessions where members of the Hospice team reflect on different topics. These allow the team to share experiences without the expectation of learning outcomes, but for the value in connecting and bonding together in a safe space.

Despite the preconceptions many people have regarding Hospice, Zain says there is a lot of joy in his role. “It’s not all doom and gloom, there is a lot of laughter and lightness and love, and it’s a privilege to be able to see that. I find joy through being open to the people I meet. I may be going into unchartered waters when I meet someone, but it can take you to some really interesting places. I remember the time I sat in a lovely lady’s kitchen unexpectedly singing Catholic songs with her! I also find joy in my colleagues – they all have their specialties and I learn so much from them. They are strong, smart and empathetic, and a real source of inspiration.”