When it was time for the Rev. Erin Raska to do her clinical pastoral education at Princeton Theological Seminary, she knew a big hospital wouldn’t be a good fit.

Raska was looking for a smaller, more intimate setting, but she was also looking for a challenge — she wanted to face her fear of death.

“Death sort of freaked me out, but I knew I needed to be able to confront this fear to do ministry,” Raska said.

Raska completed her three-month internship at Hospice of Spokane (Washington). The fact that she’d be the only intern at the program was appealing, because she knew she’d have more time to deal head-on with her issues.

But Raska, who attended Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related Whitworth University in Spokane as an undergraduate, also knew she’d appreciate the support of having her family nearby as she completed her internship.

Hospice patients are assigned a nurse, aide and social worker and can request a chaplain. Raska helped fulfill this role, working to holistically meet the needs of patients. She worked in the hospice house, a residential care center reserved for patients with life expectancies of two weeks or less.

“I definitely felt honored and privileged that they let me be in their last moments,” Raska said.

Sheryll Shepard, a chaplain at Hospice of Spokane, said the experience let Raska become acquainted with the dying process. And while Raska benefited from learning from more seasoned professionals, the staff also appreciated having the fresh eyes of a new person.

“She’s a joyful kind of person with a lot of enthusiasm and also a lot of sensitivity,” Shepard said. 

When she first began her internship work, Raska said her inclination was to talk too much. Later, she learned to feel out situations, taking care to not intrude on personal moments with family or friends and striving to carry out a ministry of presence.

“I think hospice is an incredibly valuable opportunity in terms of meeting people where they are and ministering to the dying,” Shepard said.

This lesson proved to be valuable in Raska’s later ministry. She and her husband recently returned from a year in Zambia, where they served with TEEZ, an organization that provides theological training for lay church leaders.

During their time there, Raska visited a home in which a woman was lying on the cement floor, dying of AIDS. Raska was able to sit with the woman, whereas prior to her hospice experience, she said she would have been uncomfortable and emotionally unavailable.

“We all wrestle with death,” Raska said. “I’m so thankful that I was able to come to a place where I see death as a beautiful thing.”

Raska’s choice to complete her CPE at a hospice drew the attention of the Hospice Foundation of America, which featured her in its annual education program. The 2011 program will focus on “Spirituality and End-of-Life Care” and will feature video interviews of Raska and Hospice of Spokane chaplain Sheryll Shepard. The video will be seen at about 1,000 sites across the country.