Spirituality, Health Care And Not Feeling Alone

“You’re a what?” The patient raises an eyebrow and looks at me suspiciously.

“I’m a chaplain. I’m part of the hospital team, to focus on your spiritual and emotional needs.”

“But I’m not religious.”

“That’s ok. Neither am I!” My retort brings relaxed laughter and then conversation flows.

This is how many of my visits begin as a hospital chaplain. In making my rounds, I go to rooms, meeting patients and assessing their needs. Most have no idea what a chaplain is or why they need one. The term chaplain may conjure up images of Roman Catholic priests, and as a woman I certainly do not fit that mold. People are afraid I want to convert them; I explain that I’m trained to support people of all faiths or no faith. My only agenda is the patient feels safe to express what’s going on for them. Once we get over the initial hurdle of what exactly a chaplain is, I’m amazed at the trust people put in me and how quickly they open up and share their deepest fears or greatest joys.

Sue was a patient I met through a similar introduction. A former actress in her fifties, her wavy hair was a brassy red hue that matched her personality. She told me that she hadn’t been to church in years, but she was bored so she might as well talk to me! “I don’t really care about faith and all that junk” she admitted. “What is it you do care about?” I asked. Her response was a common one: “My family.”

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that faith can be defined as one’s “ultimate concern.” Sometimes my patients are concerned with typical religious issues, like where is God in their suffering. Often, people have “ultimate concerns” that society doesn’t always see as religious, but when they ground a person’s sense of self and being, how are they not spiritual?

Sue told me how she worried about her mother and felt guilty not being able to take care of her while in the hospital. With glee, she showed me pictures of her nephews. Through tears, she spoke of her grief of never having children of her own. She shared about her brother who had died a few years earlier and how much she missed him. As she contemplated her own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis, I asked what she feared most. “I don’t want to feel alone,” she said.

After an hour, I took my leave and Sue said, “Thank you for helping me not to feel alone and for really listening. I feel so much better.”

Chaplains create a sacred space for listening to “ultimate concerns,” whatever they may be. Recently, HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, the organization I work for, launched a website, Chaplains on Handwhere you can connect with a chaplain from the comfort of your home.

My hope is that more people will come to know the benefit of chaplains and feel, like Sue, as though they are not alone.