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Why, More Than Ever, We Need Nurses as Spiritual Comforters


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Whether they are easing pain during an acute illness, helping patients cope with a new diagnosis, welcoming a new life into the world, or witnessing someone's final breaths, nurses are granted a unique privilege to be present during the most intimate moments in the lives of others. 

Nurses often witness times of heightened emotions: stress, joy, fear, or physical and emotional pain. They are called on to not only care for the bodies of the most vulnerable but their souls as well. Regardless of religious affiliation or views, providing well-rounded care as a nurse can be viewed as a spiritual calling; compassionate, holistic care that focuses on the body, mind, and soul has the ability to take fear, pain, or despair and turn it into hope, comfort, and peace. 

So often, the way patients view their experiences in healthcare has little to do with the actual outcomes of their health, but rather how respected, cared for, valued, and comforted they felt in the process.

During particularly unprecedented times of fear and uncertainty as the novel coronavirus shakes the world to its foundations, nurses are on the front lines of healthcare, providing not only bodily healing, but care and keeping of the soul as they encounter patients at their peak of fear, pain, and anxiety. The aftermath of this pandemic will reach far beyond the count of lives lost, and the responsibility of nurses to provide spiritual comfort and healing to all those affected is one that must be taken on fully and passionately.

Though it is widely recognized that assessing and tending to spiritual wellbeing has an important impact on a person's overall health, it is often easy for this vital role of nursing to be lost or forgotten in the demands of caring for numerous patients, managing the mental and physical complexity of tasks required, and integrating technology and documentation into busy schedules. 

However, nurses must be challenged to remember and respect the core value of caring for patients at all levels, from physical to spiritual, in order to deliver the most comfort and healing to those they serve, particularly during times of crisis.

So how can nurses assess a patient's spiritual needs and provide care that is sensitive to the soul? The main way is by simply being present and recognizing them as a unique individual.

Patients may feel lost and overwhelmed in a sea of machines, medical terminology, and unfamiliar routines. Taking a moment to stop and talk with them, assess how they are feeling, address what fears they have, and understand what can be done to make them more comfortable, can be very nourishing and comforting to the soul. 

Of all the members of the healthcare team, nurses arguably spend the most time with patients and can get to know them well. Simply offering a listening ear and letting patients know they are cared for can serve as a huge source of comfort and healing. This human connection should be extended not only to patients themselves, but family members and loved ones who may also be experiencing a range of emotions.

It should also not be assumed that patients will speak up for themselves; nurses should encourage open communication and ask patients and their families about any spiritual or religious needs they may have. Creativity and resourcefulness in accommodating simple comforts or requests can make all the difference in humanizing the patient experience. Being present, even if quietly, for prayer, is also often very comforting to patients. Nurses should remember that while medical interventions and care are routine and normal to them, they are witnessing major life events for others and have a unique ability to shape those experiences for the better.

It is important to recognize that the ultimate goal is not always to preserve life, but to maximize the quality of remaining life for patients and their loved ones. Many times, a peaceful death is the best care a nurse can provide and will profoundly impact the grieving process for loved ones in the months and years following a death.

Tending to the physical and spiritual needs of others can obviously be very draining, so it is important for nurses to remember to care for their peers and for themselves in order to avoid emotional exhaustion or burnout. It is helpful and spiritually cleansing to talk with peers and share in grief, triumphs, struggles, and fears, creating a sense of community and a place to grow and heal together. Taking time to step away, compartmentalize, walk outdoors, and enjoy family is necessary to recharge spiritually and emotionally so nurses can continue to provide unwavering stability to their patients.

During this difficult and uncertain time, while nurses are among the frontlines of fighting a pandemic, it is crucial to remember that the role extends far beyond physical care and preserving life and is one of the most impactful professions for shaping the human experience. More so than intellect or productivity, the compassion and dedication to humanity that drove most nurses to become healthcare professionals in the first place will be the driving force that helps them rise to the challenge.

Dr. Dawn Day is Chair of Graduate Nursing Programs and Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Spring Arbor University, which offers an online Masters of Science in Nursing.

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