By Matt Kronberg
In faith-based healthcare, we value caring for the body, mind, and spirit. But how do we operationalize this value? What does it mean to care for patients and their families in a holistic way? While there are not simple answers, one possibility is to teach people — patients, families, and staff — to embrace practices in forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. Such practices can foster hope and resilience.
The practice or habit of being grateful, for instance, is one thing that can help lead to greater health outcomes. When we are conscious of the gifts and good things in life, we feel most alive. Realizing the blessings in life both leads to and enhances a healthy and vibrant life. This has been scientifically verified, and much research has been done in this area (See Emmons, 2003). Being grateful can help not only patients; it can help anyone. Life is not about survival; it isn’t about getting discharged from the hospital, making it to retirement, or making it to the next day. It is about embracing the fullness and goodness of life and all that it has to offer.
I recently participated in a conference that highlighted not only gratitude research but evidence-based research on altruism, mindfulness, and forgiveness. A physician at the conference shared how for years he prescribed his HIV and hepatitis C patients daily walks, daily gratitude journaling, and weekly volunteering. All of these practices, he knew, had evidence-based research showing that they improve health outcomes. His 30-plus years of personal experience confirmed the research. He stated emphatically, “I could always tell who was going to be successful in their treatment. Those patients who complied with the daily walks, gratitude journal, and volunteering where almost all successful. Those who didn’t; well, almost every single one didn’t have a good outcome.” The efficacy of these practices is true and verifiable. See, for example, the work being done at UC Berkeley.
Physician and author Ira Byock explains in his book “The Four Things That Matter Most” that our focus should be on living out the following statements:
- Please forgive me.
- I forgive you.
- Thank you.
- I love you.
Forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and hope are not only important at the end of life; they are the most important things in life. Consider another story. A few months ago a staff chaplain met with a woman caught in a complex web of abuse who had out-of-control anxiety. After the chaplain met her and established rapport, the woman said that she didn’t feel safe with anyone in her life — not a family member, not a friend, not God.
The chaplain proceeded to ask if there was anything or any place that gave her comfort. She responded, “Well, I really do love my dog.” And at the mention of her dog, the woman’s constant rocking stopped and her breathing became more even. “Yes, I do love my dog,” she exhaled.
This opened the door to the chaplain leading the woman in a guided meditation where she envisioned the safety and love and comfort of her dog — no matter her external circumstances. This intervention created a sanctuary of sorts — a place of comfort and safety — for this woman.
This story highlights a spiritual practice that spiritual care can promote. While the patient felt great spiritual and emotional distress, the key to moving toward a positive outcome — towards gratitude and compassion and hope — was to focus on her strengths and give her a tool, a spiritual practice, to take with her. In this case, what gave her strength was thinking about her beloved pet — her dog. Far from being trivial, this may have been the most important intervention of this woman’s hospitalization.
With shorter and shorter hospital stays, it may seem that a chaplain’s opportunity to make a difference in patients’ lives is dwindling. Our time with patients — especially with those able to talk and open to some level of spiritual direction — is greatly diminished. Perhaps it is time for chaplains to focus more on the long-term goal of engaging and teaching patients about practices that foster spiritual health?
There is not a simple answer to the challenge of focusing on prevention and wellness. But opportunities are all around us. As healthcare shifts to focus more on improving the health of populations as a whole, spiritual care can make a corresponding shift. We will need to become experts in the spiritual practices and experts in collaborating with other healthcare professionals doing science-based research on practices that encourage a more meaningful and vibrant life.
Rev. Matt Kronberg, BCC, is director of spiritual care for the Dignity Health Central Coast Service Area in Santa Barbara County, CA.