<<< prev | next >>>

Handbook for Mortals : Finding Meaning

Chaplains and Others Who Can Help

If you are in a hospital or hospice program, a chaplain can offer support, prayer, and spiritual guidance. Chaplains are people ordained or consecrated for religious ministry who have a special commitment to work with people who are seriously ill. They come from various religious backgrounds, and provide support regardless of your religious affiliation. They can join you, your family, and your friends for prayer or worship services, or for other rites and rituals that honor your faith. You also may want to invite health care professionals to join you in prayer or ritual; often, they are willing and even happy to do so

Many, but not all, hospitals have chaplains whose job it is to counsel and support the very sick and their families. Some people feel reluctant to talk to chaplains for fear that the chaplain will preach at them or attempt to convert them. This situation should not occur. Hospital chaplains participate in rigorous clinical pastoral education (CPE) programs, and their desire will be to help you and to offer you comfort and care that is centered in what you believe and value, not to persuade you toward any particular religious faith. Because chaplains have been trained to listen to your concerns, you may find that they are easy to talk to, and that you can lean on them to help work out problems or issues that trouble you.

Most hospital chaplains participate in clinical pastoral education programs approved by either the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education or the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. The time commitment for this process varies but includes at least 400 hours of study, service, and reflection for an introductory program. People who become hospital chaplains generally spend one or two years in a residency program devoting their full time to preparation for the chaplain's role. The Association of Professional Chaplains (and other national and denominational groups), a respected national professional association, provides a process for board certification of chaplains. Board-certified chaplains must complete at least one year of training and also pass a rigorous peer review process. As is true in so many professions, credentials are no guarantee of quality. However, people can ask questions of chaplains, such as the level of formal training they have received and the focus on interfaith care.

What You Can -- And Should -- Expect From The Chaplain

You deserve to:

  • Tell your story and your concerns to a chaplain who listens to you and hears your concerns.
  • Meet with a chaplain who is affiliated with an established religious denomination.
  • Understand the person's credentials.
  • Maintain control over your care; if a chaplain makes you feel pressured to take a particular direction for medical care, you are probably not working with the right person. Work with someone who respects and values you as you are.
  • Talk to a chaplain who understands the dynamics of disease and knows how to talk about your illness.
  • Be comfortable with the chaplain.

(from Patrick McCoy and Tom Smith)

A religious leader in your own faith is obviously someone you might turn to for help. Your own community's ministry may have recommendations on how to seek spiritual support and care for end-of-life issues.

When you leave the hospital, you may want continued professional support and guidance. Pastoral counselors are well-suited to help. Pastoral counselors are individuals who have training in theology or ministry, and who have formal training in counseling and psychology. They can help you and your family work through spiritual concerns, fears, and problems, and can counsel those who may be depressed, overwhelmed, and under a great deal of stress. They can help you put issues in perspective. If you are uncomfortable discussing your spirituality with your family, pastoral counselors offer the security and privacy you may need. If you want to bring up spiritual concerns, but don't know how, pastoral counselors can help with this, too. Most pastoral counselors accept payments according to a sliding fee scale, so the cost should not be a barrier for you.

Your worship or faith community (meaning your church, synagogue, temple, or other site) may have prayer support groups and lay ministers. One wide-spread lay group is called the Stephen Ministry. People from your church or congregation may visit you at home or in the hospital, pray and offer sacraments, and provide practical support, such as respite care for your family or grocery shopping. Some communities have prayer support groups that meet to pray together, but that also pray on your behalf. People who participate in these groups find them supportive and comforting. In fact, such groups can even be found on the Internet. And emerging research shows that people who are active in their church, have a relationship with God or some spiritual being, and pray seem to cope with illness and dying more easily than those who have not yet focused on their spirituality.

You may also find support and comfort through practices such as yoga, relaxation therapy, meditation, healing rituals from other cultures, writing and journal exercises, or spirituality courses offered by local colleges and adult education programs. Ritual and tradition give form and focus to faith, strength, and support for many people and families. You may find that praying alone or with your family or other caregivers (even if this is not something you have ordinarily done) is comforting. When you are gone, shared prayers and rituals will offer a way for people to reconnect with you and the love you shared. In fact, you might think of creating some more family rituals while you are very sick. How do you say goodnight or goodbye on a daily basis? Sometimes it makes time seem much more meaningful and orderly if there is some little prayer or other ritual that marks important times each day. The essay, "Night Light" describes how one woman, in learning to pray with her dying grandmother, supported her grandmother and learned to cope with her own loss.

To learn more about the book "Handbook for Mortals" click here.