Early in my spiritual healing practice I went to visit a homeless man who was living temporarily in a motel. He was suffering from extreme mental distress and intense fear. I talked to him for a while, sharing ideas I hoped would calm and comfort him, but he only became irrationally angry with me, and as I got in the car to leave, he slammed the car door on my leg.
As he pushed and pushed, he said, “I am going to push this door until I break your leg.” I was just quiet. Soon, he let go. I got out of the car and sat down in the parking lot with him and he talked for over an hour. I listened, and we prayed together. He quieted down, and stated he needed someone to listen to him and pray with him. He was much better when I left. Shortly after that, he found an apartment he could afford and lived there happily for quite a while. From that experience, I learned the importance of compassion in helping others.
Compassion was the theme of this year’s “Caring for the Human Spirit” Conference in Chicago. Sponsored by the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, this year’s speakers focused on the important role compassion plays in patient care. Held at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, the conference was attended by 300 hospital and hospice chaplains, nurses and social workers, and via video conferencing by professionals from all over the world – from the Netherlands and Germany to Ethiopia and Kenya.
According to the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, 87% of patients call spirituality important in their lives and according to one survey, 72% of patients articulated that they received minimal or no spiritual support from the medical team. To remedy this, Dr. Harold Koenig, M.D. of Duke University contends that patients need spiritual care generalists – physicians, nurses, social workers, etc, and spiritual care specialists – board certified chaplains (those who have completed a Master’s degree in Divinity or its equivalent in an area relevant to professional chaplaincy).
According to HCCN, “Board-certified chaplains seek to provide spiritual care to patients of all faith traditions and none. An explicit ethic of professional chaplaincy is that the board-certified chaplain seeks to connect the patient, family or staff person to their spiritual frame of reference, not superimpose or proselytize any specific religious or spiritual tradition.”
This year’s conference speakers emphasized compassion and its great value in ministering to hospice and hospital patients. Several speakers defined compassion as the capacity not only to attend to the experience of others, but to be of service. Shane Sinclair, PhD, spiritual care coordinator at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, at the University of Calgary said, “Compassion is a verb – trying to understand another and accordingly act.”
He also noted benefits to the one expressing compassion. He said, “When you help other people, you help yourself. There is very little evidence that you can run out of compassion.” Keynote speaker and Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Jiko Halifax, agreed. A pioneer in the field of end-of-life care, Halifax said, “Fatigue comes from distraction; attention gives us power and rest.” Various speakers emphasized that occupational burn-out can be overturned by compassionate engagement with patients and their families.
Both Sinclair and Halifax remarked that listening to the patient is vital in compassionate care. They, as well as other speakers, remarked that patients did not want pity-based sympathy – that pity brought them down. Instead, what they wanted was someone who would actually listen to their fears, concerns and emotional pain to be with them during this time.
Self-care of professional caregivers, including chaplains, nurses and social workers, was addressed in break-out sessions. While it was acknowledged that hospice and hospital service can be hard work, Debra Mattison, clinical assistant professor in the school of social work at University of Michigan stated, “Instead of saying our work is hard work, which it is, know that it is holy work.” She remarked that it is important for chaplains and social workers, as well as nurses to see how empowering their work is to themselves and others. Many in the group nodded their heads in agreement.
Participants told me how they found compassion to be stress-busting – that their work is a spiritual journey with the patient and family; and that compassion naturally brings out a great sense of love, care, dignity and grace to their efforts that is felt by the patient and family members.
Mattison asked participants to fill in this blank: Would I want a (fill in your occupation) like me? For instance, would I want a chaplain, nurse or social worker like me? Hence, the importance of treating others as we would want to be treated.
After attending this conference I was reminded of the phrase, “A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that has handled stress exceptionally well.” I was glad to meet these wonderful, dedicated chaplains, nurses and social workers – each one a sparkling example of Jesus’ Golden Rule, “As ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so them.”
©2017 Christian Science Committee on Publication for Illinois