By David Lichter
After my mother was diagnosed with a severe hemorrhagic stroke, we decided to move her from one hospital system to another. The main reason was the lack of communication and the way we were treated at the first location. At the system we left, the physician talked quickly with us at the bedside of our mother, as if Mom were not there, and was pretty dismissive of her outlook, providing us just basic information and not engaging us in the treatment process.
But when we arrived at Mom’s new hospital, the physician quickly ushered my brother and me into an office, asked how we were doing, expressed empathy at what Mom and we were going through, showed us a computer image of Mom’s brain, and sketched on a piece of paper exactly what had happened to her — and what would occur in the coming hours. Then he explained that anything we wanted to do at that point for Mom would be for our benefit, not hers.
This physician, who was of the Muslim faith, was also aware of our Catholic faith. We felt relief at knowing the facts, comfort at the physician’s concern for Mom and what she was going through, and confidence in the palliative care treatment that could be provided. We were at peace with moving her to a palliative care floor, where she lived another 24 hours. Over that time, our family was visited by a volunteer, who brought a prayer shawl. A chaplain stopped by to see how we were doing and offered to have us exchange memories of Mom. A priest stopped to see if we wanted the Sacrament of Anointing for her. Every time the palliative care nurse stopped in, she commented, “Gee, I am so sorry your mom and you have to go through this,” as she stroked Mom’s head and arms. With Mom’s final breath, we were deeply appreciative of having moved her to this healthcare facility.
This issue of Vision is dedicated to ministering to the needs of families of patients and residents. When the 2001 White Paper on Professional Chaplaincy was published, the fourth section was titled, “The Benefits of Spiritual Care Provided by Professional Chaplains,” with the fifth subsection on “Caring for Families.” It offered insights, based on research at the time, and a conclusion:
- Often family members experience similar or more intense distress than their hospitalized loved ones. In some studies, patients have indicated that one of the most important chaplaincy functions is helping their family members with feelings associated with illness and hospitalization (Carey, 1973; Carey, 1985).
- In one study, 56 percent of the families identified religion as the most important factor in helping them cope with their loved one’s illness (Koenig, Hover, Bearon, & Travis, 1991).
- In another study, family members rated spiritual care from chaplains more highly than did patients (Vandecreek, Thomas, Jessen, Gibbons & Strasser, 1991).
Conclusion: Families rely on religious and spiritual resources to cope with the high levels of distress during a loved one’s illness. A chaplain’s care for family members has a positive impact.
Certainly, our family experience of the physician, nurse, and spiritual care staff during those final hours of Mom’s life left an indelible impression on us. They helped us chose the best care possible, and supported us and our extended family as we said our goodbyes. As chaplains, we can’t underestimate what the family is going through, whether it’s the intensity of strained family dynamics during tough decision-making or the quiet letting go of a loved one.
We are deeply grateful for all the ways chaplaincy ministry tends to the needs of family members in vulnerable times. Thank you for your ministry.