When Suffering Becomes SpiritualSeptember, 2013
By Rev. Sue Wintz MDiv BCC, Managing Editor, Plainviews, Consultant for Chaplaincy Practice and Leadership, HealthCare Chaplaincy
When we or someone we love is sick, we expect our health care team to address our physical illness. However we know that suffering is oftentimes more than physical pain. We can become emotional when faced with an advanced illness: upset, anxious, fearful, or experience other feelings. Sometimes our health care providers can help us with that.
But what about the deeper parts of illness and suffering? How do we find meaning and comfort when the very beliefs and values we hold onto are challenged?
Jonathon was a young man in his 20s who was admitted to the hospital after experiencing symptoms that left him feeling disoriented, although with very little pain. After a work-up, the physician came in with news that changed his world forever: a diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor. “How can God let this happen to me? I’ve been faithful in my religion all my life. I have a beautiful wife and our daughter just turned two years old. This can’t be happening.”
Religious, spiritual, or cultural needs and resources may be important to us but illness and suffering can make it difficult to draw on our beliefs or find the support that we need. Emotional and spiritual suffering is just as important as that we experience through physical pain. We may have strong spiritual resources or involvement with a religious or spiritual community that can come to our aid. But many of us have neither of those or have such severe suffering that those resources are not sufficient for the health crisis we are experiencing. So what to do?
Jonathon’s doctor knew that he needed someone who could support her in her emotional and spiritual distress. So he wrote an order for the hospital chaplain to be consulted. The chaplain listened to Jonathon’s distress, providing space for him to express his deepest fears and anger. And over the course of his stay, which included surgery to remove the tumor, the chaplain provided support as he and her family struggled to find meaning and comfort in what lie ahead.
Health care facilities are recognizing that supporting and meeting spiritual, religious, and cultural needs helps patients cope and improves their and their families’ satisfaction with the overall care provided. To do so, they are increasingly including on their team clinically trained, board certified professional chaplains.
Professional board certified chaplains, as full members of the multidisciplinary care team, ensure that persons’ beliefs and values are recognized and incorporated into their care. They have academic and clinical training which gives them the skills to assist people of any faith or no faith who are sick, injured, or suffering. They will accept without judgment a patient’s own beliefs, faith and practice as well as their doubts and misgivings. They are prohibited from proselytizing by their national Code of Ethics. They will make sure that you are able to continue in the hospital any religious or cultural practices that are important to you. If you desire, they will find a leader from a community of your faith or tradition to visit you.
Board certified chaplains are non-judgmental listeners. They provide a safe space to verbalize one’s hopes and fears and to explore religious and spiritual concerns that challenge one’s sense of meaning when faced with a life-altering event.
It is important to know that not all hospitals or other health care facilities have professional chaplains on staff. If this is important to you, you might want to check with the facility you or your loved one would be using, and let them know that you hope they would consider hiring a professional chaplain. If your hospital or other health care facility does have a professional chaplain, a simple request to your nurse or physician that you would like to see the chaplain should be enough to have the chaplain visit.
When should you request a chaplain?
- When you have received bad news
- When you are anxious about an upcoming treatment or surgery
- When you are feeling lonely and isolated from your family and community
- When you feel you may have lost touch with the meaning and purpose in your life
- When you feel your religious or spiritual beliefs and practices are not helping you cope as much as you would hope
- When you feel you might want to be reconnected to a faith community
- When you are having trouble communicating with your family or your health care team
- When you have to make decisions about your care and are having trouble sorting out your thoughts
- When you want help continuing important religious or spiritual practices while in the hospital
- When you want someone to reach out to your religious or spiritual community for you
- When you have cultural practices that you would like to engage in or have part of your care
When faced with an advanced illness, one’s life can be turned upside down. A board certified professional chaplain can be one of the key persons on your health care team when you are searching for meaning and comfort in the midst of suffering: physical, emotional, and spiritual.