When illness brings spiritual suffering

Categories: Care.

When we or someone we love is sick, injured or in pain, we expect some part of our healthcare system to help us with our physical pain. But what about the deeper parts of illness and suffering, which are just as important? How do we find meaning and comfort when the very beliefs and values we hold onto are challenged?

Grace was a nurse who was admitted to the hospital experiencing symptoms that she found more annoying than painful. After a work-up, the physician came in with news that changed her world forever: a diagnosis of an aggressive brain tumor. “How can God let this happen to me? I’ve got a husband and children, and I’ve been a faithful Christian all my life. It’s just not fair!”

Religious, spiritual, or cultural needs and resources may be important to us but illness and suffering can make it difficult to draw on those supports. We may have strong spiritual resources or involvement with a faith 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?

Grace’s doctor knew that she needed someone who could provide support in her emotional and spiritual distress, so he wrote an order for the hospital chaplain to be consulted. As that chaplain, I listened to Grace’s distress, hearing her deepest fears and anger with God. Over the course of her stay, which included surgery to remove the tumor, I continued to provide support as she and her family struggled to find meaning and comfort as they prepared for what lay ahead.

Professional chaplains, as full members of the care team, ensure that persons’ beliefs and values are recognized and incorporated into their care. Their academic, clinical training, and national certification, assures they have 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.

Joe came into the hospital because he needed back surgery. He had suffered with pain for a long time, and had finally decided that “something needed to be done.” Because he had declined any medication but was clearly in pain, the staff asked me to see him. When I walked in the room and introduced myself, his first words were “I’m not religious”.

“Okay”, I responded. “How about we don’t talk about religion?”

Joe talked about his family and his desire to “be strong for them”. As I gently asked him about his understanding of strength, he took a deep breath and then said: “Chaplain, I’ve never told anyone this before, but…” As he told me his story of military service and seeing combat, his eyes filled with tears. “I had to be strong,” he said over and over.

I spent over an hour with Joe as he shared his struggle to find meaning not only in his current illness, but in the events that shaped his life and understanding of what it meant to be strong. As we talked, he visibly relaxed. At the end of the conversation he said that he would be willing to accept medication for his pain.

When you or a loved one is in the hospital, a professional chaplain can be helpful when you:

  • have received bad news
  • are anxious
  • are feeling lonely or isolated
  • are struggling with questions of meaning and purpose
  • feel your religious or spiritual beliefs and practices aren’t helping you cope
  • find difficulty in communicating with your family or your healthcare team
  • are having trouble sorting out your thoughts about healthcare decisions
  • want help continuing or incorporating important religious, spiritual or cultural practices into your care
  • need someone to reach out to a religious, spiritual, or cultural community for you.

Healthcare 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. However, not all have professional chaplains on staff, so you might want to check to ensure that your care includes one. If not, I suggest you let them know that you hope they would consider hiring one.

The Rev. Sue Wintz, a board certified chaplain, is managing editor of the online professional chaplaincy journal PlainViews, a publication of HealthCare Chaplaincy where she is also a consultant for chaplaincy practice.

This article originally appeared on the Washington Post ‘On Faith’ website.

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