1. Sweat, Mary T.

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IS THERE A STARTING PLACE for spiritual care? Where does one begin in meeting spiritual needs, especially in difficult situations?


Meeting spiritual needs begins by treating another person with respect and dignity. Judith Sessler did just that when she cared for a methadone-addicted premature baby and his mother, a recovering heroin addict (see "Practicing," p. 41). It is not always easy to put aside personal values, strong feelings and judgments about our clients. When we care for someone who was injured because they drove a car while intoxicated, nurse a physically abused child or treat a morbidly obese, heavy smoker after a myocardial infarction, it may be difficult to put aside our feelings.


Judith put away any anger she felt about this tiny baby's addiction to methadone and laid aside her preconceived ideas about the mother. In doing so, she offered the best in spiritual care.


How? Judith treated the mother as one made in the image of God. She dignified this troubled mother by greeting and welcoming her to her son's bedside. She reached out her hand in a gesture of caring. Judith discussed the baby's care in detail, explained equipment and procedures and talked about potential treatment plans and outcomes. Because the nurse began the relationship with respect, the mom trusted Judith enough to share some of her story, expressing her deepest longings to get her life together and be a good mother.


What does it mean to be made in the image of God? In Genesis 1:26, God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea [horizontal ellipsis] birds [horizontal ellipsis] cattle [horizontal ellipsis] wild animals [horizontal ellipsis] over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. "What was God communicating?


God is Spirit and, being made in his image, we too are spirit beings. We are the only being God made with body, mind and spirit. Humans alone are able to be in a spiritual relationship with God, because of Jesus Christ. Just as God is creative, loving, emotional, intellectual and so on, we too are creative, loving, emotional, etc. It is also clear that God has a will and makes choices. He imparted will to humankind. Finally, God has complete dominion and rule over the universe. He shared that dominion with people when he imparted the power to rule over the earth to humankind.


Because people are like God, we have special dignity and value. Good spiritual care begins with a knowledge and acceptance of this inherent worth, offering full respect and dignity to someone because they are like God.


We do not know if Judith's encounter with this mother was a onetime interaction or if she had an ongoing relationship during the baby's hospitalization. Meeting spiritual needs often happens spontaneously and as a brief encounter. Many times there is no opportunity for follow-up care. So, it is necessary to be vigilant and prepared, ready to see spiritual needs and respond.


Although Judith did not specifically discuss religion or spirituality, she responded to the mother's needs for love and relatedness, touching her physically, emotionally and spiritually. It does not appear that this mother had religious values or a faith community. Further care may have led the mother to wonder about Judith's Ultimate Source-God.


Years ago nurses Sharon Fish and Judy Shelly cited a survey of ninety patients' perceptions of spiritual care in their book, Spiritual Care: The Nurse's Role. Of these 90 patients, 77 percent agreed that "A nurse who sits down and listens is helping me spiritually," while 97 percent agreed that "Nurses give spiritual care by being concerned, cheerful, and kind."1 More recently, nurse researcher Elizabeth Johnston Taylor found in a meta-analysis of spiritual care research that patients just want nurses to be respectful, loving and fully present.2


Truly, spiritual care begins with dignity and respect.


1 Sharon Fish and Judith Allen Shelly, Spiritual Care: The Nurse's Role, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, l979), p. 159. [Context Link]


2 Elizabeth Johnston Taylor, "Spiritual Care Research: What Have We Learned?" Journal of Christian Nursing 22, no. 1 (Winter 2005): 22-28. [Context Link]