Getting admitted to a hospital or undergoing a difficult treatment for a health condition can be overwhelming. Many patients have a difficult time coping with their diagnosis or symptoms and can experience a sense of isolation, anxiety or spiritual distress.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with limits on visitors and so many people in the hospital who were previously healthy and didn’t expect to be there, we’ve seen an increase in patients experiencing these issues.
We spoke with our Rochester Regional Health Spiritual Care team to learn more about the concept of spiritual distress and how we help patients feel more connected.
Spiritual distress isn’t necessarily religious – it’s a loss of faith, hope or connection to things that had previously been important to you.
“When you first hear the term ‘spiritual distress,’ you may immediately jump to the thought that this has to do with religion,” explained Bryan McMullen, Chaplain and Supervisor of Rochester Regional Health Spiritual Care team. “Instead, spiritual distress encompasses a person’s whole being – are their belief systems and core values intact? Do they feel connected to the things that typically help them feel grounded, whether that be their religion, an activity or a companion?”
Sometimes, a patient who is hospitalized or undergoing treatment for a difficult condition finds that the challenges they are going through bump up against and conflict with their previously held beliefs. While feeling fearful, upset or angry about a health issue or hospitalization is common, at times these can also be signs of spiritual distress.
That’s where our Spiritual Care team comes into the picture.
“We work with each patient to help them process the loss of connection that they’ve experienced,” said Jill Pavone, Intern Chaplain. “We acknowledge how they’re feeling and help them to identify why they feel disconnected.”
An example is a patient who was struggling with a terminal illness. He felt like a failure because he was leaving a young family behind. Our chaplains developed a relationship with him, built on empathy and trust, and helped him to make space for and acknowledge how he was feeling. They then helped him to find a unique way to thank each family member for the impact they had on his life and the meaning their relationships brought him. His mood visibly changed and he felt at peace.
Another example comes from McMullen himself. “My family always did a ton of hiking – we loved the outdoors, fresh air and surrounding ourselves with nature,” he said. “My older son has a condition that has put him a wheelchair, so we’re not able to get out into nature as much as we had. For a while, that was a really spiritually distressing dynamic on our family until we were able to find new ways to breathe life into our family.”
“We don’t have a prescription pad or a medication cart,” he continued. “What we have is our ability to listen and reflect.”
This reflection helps patients, and their families, find new meaning.
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