Life and death are all in a day's work for Marjorie Egger

Facing death is arguably the hardest part of life. As a full-time chaplain at Delaware Hospice in Milford, Marjorie Egger deals with it every day.

“I was called to do this work,” she said with a smile.

It wasn’t something she planned on. Prior to becoming a chaplain, Egger worked as a music therapist and a church musician. She and her husband attended Lancaster Theological Seminary and were ordained in their 50s.

“It’s like a third career for me,” she said.

Following seminary, Egger’s husband was assigned to a church in Indiana. Once there, Egger assumed she would eventually be assigned and become a church pastor. Then another option presented itself.

“I got a call from a local hospital that happened to have a very small hospice organization,” she said.

After speaking with the director, Egger began her first job as a hospice chaplain. She found the work rewarding and remained for six years, until moving to Delaware.

As the Delaware Hospice chaplain, Egger visits people receiving hospice care in their homes and in nursing homes throughout Sussex County. At the moment, she has around 60 patients, and spends anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours with each once a month. It can be a very complex job.

“I help them find meaning in life; I help them claim what’s been good about their life, where they find joy. Sometimes I help them think about relationships that might not have gone well in the past, and help them figure out how to deal with it. We talk about dying and what might come after. Some people are afraid. I provide support for wherever they are in terms of their faith,” Egger said.

Egger deals with people of all faiths, and those who follow no faith. She is a Presbyterian, but her beliefs are put on the back burner when she’s working.

“I don’t bring religion into the conversation unless it’s called for,” she said. “I had a gentleman who didn’t want anything to do with church or prayer. He was a truck driver and loved that with a passion, so I helped him claim that as what brought him joy.”

Asking someone where they’ve found joy in life is what Egger calls a “showstopper.”

“By asking them what’s been important in their life, they begin to think about the goodness that’s there and it helps them claim who they are as people,” she said.

Another way she connects with patients is by asking them where they see God, such as in nature, music or children.

“I have a patient who is asking very deep spiritual questions, and she is very good at finding God in relationships with other people,” Egger said.

In other cases, hospice patients have been sick for a long time and death hasn’t come quickly. Egger helps those patients find meaning in life, though they often cannot take care of themselves or are in pain.

“When these people get to hospice they’re tired and they want it to be over,” she said. “So I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose now? What can you do in this position?’ In some ways that’s one of the hardest things I do.”

Many patients find comfort when Egger points out to them that they’ve taken care of others in their life and now they must allow others to find joy in taking care of them. The loved ones of those in hospice care are an equally important focus of the chaplain, and the jobs of friends and family are often easier when a patient readily accepts their help. Egger is one of few outlets for them and provides needed understanding and encouragement.

Obviously, death is not always painless, so it’s also part of the chaplain’s job to help patients with their fears of the physical symptoms. Egger stressed that she works with the medical staff as a team.

“Nurses, the social worker, myself, a bereavement counselor, the doctor,” she said. “We will help them be comfortable.”

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