Author’s note: I’ve had the privilege of serving as a chaplain to members of the military, law enforcement, and healthcare professionals. Today, I offer this letter to those in healthcare who fight daily to care for others. My hope is that you and I can partner to help you give the same level of care to yourself.
You deal with death, pain, uncertainty, and suffering. You see your patients attempt to process the uncertain world in which they find themselves and listen to them ask questions about the meaning of life, why awful things happen, and what happens when they die. Some find themselves in need of your care as a result of their own life choices; others because of some unfortunate circumstance. Regardless of how they get there, their personal beliefs regarding religion and/or spirituality shape their experiences and influence their interpretation of their situations.
Each of the journeys you’ve shared with your patients — those which are forever etched into your memory and those that have faded to an echo of a whisper — they are all unique. But across the board, it has been noted that the patient’s belief system (or lack thereof) influences their physical health and felt experience; a commonality which has inspired research to formally explore this link. The findings have prompted many healthcare providers to re-evaluate their approach regarding their patients’ spirituality and to take these into account when developing a treatment plan.
Research on a patient’s experience as influenced by their religion and spirituality is now readily available from respected sources such as Mayo¹, Johns Hopkins², and George Washington³. Conversely, there is a glaring lack of literature on the soul of the healthcare provider. Your patient is the one suffering the ramifications of their ill health, but being alongside them, you also take part in their struggle and your hands feel the reverberations of their pain. So how do you, as the healthcare professional, care for yourself in the all-too-often emotionally wrenching experience of caregiving?
If it’s hard to even begin to answer to that question, let’s start by defining what “spirituality” is. To be clear, while there is a lot of interplay between the concepts of religion and spirituality, they are not the same. More on that HERE. Broadly speaking, “spirituality” generally refers to that part of ourselves which transcends the temporal nature of our existence to connect with something greater than ourselves, where we find meaning and purpose in our lives. Incorporating a focus on spiritual well-being is essential to your overall self-care, which in turn allows you to better serve your calling to care for others. Bearing this in mind, allow me a metaphoric acronym to help you structure care for yourself. When you feel the cracks starting to form under the pressure, a little “GLUE” to hold everything together might be just what you need.
“G” — Ground yourself in who you are
- Do you know who you aspire to be?
- Is it grounded in a faith tradition?
- If not, what positive mark do you want to leave on this world?
“L” — Look to others to share in your journey
- Identify people you respect and ask them to mentor you
- Ask for opinions from both likeminded and differing individuals
- Seek out truth tellers that speak with conscientious honesty
- Share good and bad days
“U” — Understand that you don’t have all the answers
- You are trained, skilled, and change lives, but you can’t fix everything
- Give yourself permission to ask for help
- Questions are a gift; keep refining your skill of asking the right ones
“E” — Expect to find and give good in this world
- Boldly celebrate good things
- Offer goodness to those who don’t deserve it
- Delight in little things (sunsets, chocolates, a win by your favorite sports team)
The last two years have been more than anyone could have imagined. You’ve witnessed incredible suffering as patients and their loved ones try to make sense of their struggles, absorbing the ricochet of their agony as you do your best to ease their burdens. Now, it is time to take stock of your own struggle. Today is a good day to take a moment and fight for you and your well-being, just as you would for any of your patients. It isn’t always easy and the toll is never fair, but with just a little GLUE, you can hold it all together.
: Mueller, Paul S et al. “Religious involvement, spirituality, and medicine: implications for clinical practice.” Mayo Clinic proceedings 76 12 (2001): 1225–35.
: Cooper, Rhonda S. et al. “AMEN in challenging conversations: bridging the gaps between faith, hope, and medicine.” Journal of oncology practice 10 4 (2014): e191–5.