Spirituality: Honoring the Deepest Needs of Patients, Caregivers, and Team Members

October 12, 2020

Often in end of life care, team work is valued and practiced daily. Nurses tend to the patient’s physical needs, social workers tend to social and emotional needs, and we leave the spiritual and religious aspects to the chaplain. While each of these areas of expertise is important, spirituality is the area that most team members find off limits and will gladly turf to the chaplain to handle. They may feel that their religious backgrounds aren’t “strong enough” or or feel lacking in knowledge about the Bible, history, beliefs, religions, and other culture’s religions to have those conversations, so they hand it over to the resident “spirituality expert” - the chaplain.


But what does your team chaplain want you to know about spirituality? 


There is a difference between spirituality and religion. Practicing a religion can be a part of someone’s spirituality, but the concept of spirituality is much larger than attending a church service or saying a prayer. The etymology of the word spirit traces its root meaning back to the words life, breath, inspiration, respiration, and life. Ultimately, one definition of spirituality is that which brings us or fills us with life. 


While the chaplain will help the patient, caregivers, and family members with religious practice and prayer, they are also keenly aware of how far-reaching spirituality is. For example, some people may feel far more in touch with a higher power when fly-fishing or riding their bike than sitting in church service. Gazing at the mountain side or sunset may help patients and family members feel connected to their spirituality over gathering in a building we call church.


What do your patients, families, and caregivers need to maximize the meaning of spirituality - that which gives us life? Beyond just surviving, how can they live in the time they have left? While the chaplain is trained and very able to hold the deeper conversations with patients and families, we can support the chaplain’s work by being intentional in our practice of the following: 


It’s OK to sit without words, listen, and be present. As nurses, social workers, aides, pharmacists, doctors, and bereavement counselors, we often feel the need to have all the answers to all the questions. While it is important to help the patient and family with answers to their questions, sometimes feel our own internal pressures. 


We may feel self-conscious with questions we don’t feel are within our expertise. When people are dying, what we convey in body language, presence, and eye contact may be more important than our words. You don’t have to have the answers 100% of the time. It’s OK to not know. It’s ok to sit with wonder. It’s OK to trust that the answer will come in time.


In reality, we are all carrying out our expertise to help support those meaningful moments of resolution, joy, gratitude, love, and forgiveness as patients transition.


The chaplain needs your help in creating an environment of openness, willingness, and truth. You know that feeling of fulfillment you get when you witness the patient and family share intimate moments, deep feelings, and meaningful words? Those are the moments end-of-life professionals carefully make space for and support in the patient’s life.


 If the patient were in too much pain, those moments of deep connection may not occur because the patient would not be able to focus on emotional needs while their pain isn’t under control. 


If the caregiver doesn’t have a comfort level and is scared to be alone with a dying person,  those moments may not happen because anxiety gets in the way of sharing meaningful connections.


 In the absence of trained and willing humans in their lives, many patients and family members may miss these meaningful opportunities to share memories, speak the apologies and forgive, and express the love and connection. Because end-of-life professionals have this experience, we gently encourage the communication and resolution between family members. When team members work toward physical comfort and encouraging communication in the family,  they set the stage for those moments to occur. Ultimately, we are all working to take care of physical and social/emotional needs so that patients and families can touch their spiritual needs of connection and making meaning of their life and their death.


It’s not just important - it’s necessary - to honor your deepest needs when you work in hospice. How can you continue to honor your own deepest needs, feeding your soul and filling your tank to be the best service provider you can be? How is your spirituality expressed? What brings you life? 


Tapping into your own spiritual, life-giving needs and fulfilling them is an investment in your present and future self. It creates a person who gives to others while taking care of herself. It creates a person in touch with her life’s purpose. 


Pause to feel the wind on your face and the perfect light at sunset. Listen to the leaves blow through the neighborhood on the pavement. Take in the beauty of the lights in the city, the cattle on the country hillside, or the chill in the air as you sit on the porch. When do you feel most alive? Answer this question and do more of that. 


There may have been a time where your team chaplain supported you after a difficult or challenging day. Today is the day to say thank you for their kindness, selflessness, and communication skills. A helpful and supportive team member is worth their weight in gold. 


Thank you to all of the chaplains who are present through the uncomfortable times. You and your willingness to hold the space for others to express emotions are invaluable additions to the team.





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