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Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”                    KJV (Joshua 1:9)


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Title: Teaching Nurses to Provide Spiritual Care
Author: Mary Ruth Lally RN
Visit Website:

Date Posted:

April 24, 2011

Teaching Nurses to Provide Spiritual Care

How can we help our patients tap into their inner strength to heal? How can we define ‘inner strength’? What are ‘thoughts and feelings’? What actually is ‘spiritual care’?

As I understand, theorists and researchers have yet to agree on a universal definition of spirituality (Dossey, 2001) But as nurses, I am sure that we all believe it has a great impact on the health and well-being of the people in our care. So it is up to us to learn about our own emotional thinking and that of our patients to become great partners in care.

The answer to these questions lies in empowering patients, through support, to understand and express their feelings (Taylor, 2007) I encourage my patients to verbalise what they are feeling. After all, it is their body and they know their body best. A personal example is when I was prescribed hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms. After being on HRT patches for six months I knew I just didn’t “feel” right. My thinking was fuzzy, my moods different, I couldn’t really describe it. The only reason for these changes had to be the new medication. After consulting my doctor and telling her what I was feeling, I stopped the patches and within a month or so, I was back to my old self. Yes, the hot flushes returned but I “felt” better.

Knowing your body and having the confidence to express how you feel, is something we need to teach our patients. We must not lose sight of the fact that our “patients” are people, just like us! We must encourage a partnership with our patient. This partnership should not reflect a hierarchy where the patient knows nothing and we the nurses know everything. Instead we must act as a supporter, a mentor and a teacher. You can be an effective and successful support person when you are in touch with your own feelings, your own body, your own mind and spirit. This may seem obvious but unless you are in touch with your own feelings, isn’t it hard to be empathetic with others?

If a patient is unable to verbalise what they are feeling or thinking, put yourself in their place and think about how you might feel. Encourage them to speak out by saying something like: “I experienced a similar thing and this is what worked for me, maybe it might work for you” “One way you could deal with this is……what do you think?”

“What works for you at home when this happens?”

Giving your patient the opportunity to come up with their own answers empowers them to take control. The body has inner resources to heal itself and they can be tapped into when nursing care is delivered with humour and love, and in an enthusiastic way. This inner strength brings to mind the old saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!” But seriously, how do you answer patients’ difficult questions about spirituality when they are posed? How do you respond when someone says “Why did God do this?” Or “God is punishing me for letting this happen!” I would respond in the following way.

• Spend time listening to what your patient has to say (Brush & Daly, 2000)

• Don’t be in a rush to respond.

• Allow some time for the patient to gather their thoughts and wait for them to express their feelings.

• Without getting into a discussion about personal belief systems (unless the patient wants to) I usually say that when our body breaks down it’s telling us to slow down or to take better care of ourselves.

The body, mind and soul are one and I believe a physical complaint can sometimes be a result when the spiritual psyche of a person needs care. A simple example to think about: does your patient have chronic back pain because God is doing this? Or is it because weight is an issue?

On a spiritual level, help your patient identify the emotional factors that have led to the weight issue and you will be on your way to helping your patient take control of their healthy life again. This is just one aspect spiritual care.


-Brush, B.L. & Daly, P.R. (2000) Assessing spirituality in primary care practice: Is there time? Clinical Excellence for nurse Practitioners.

-Dossey, L. (2001) Healing beyond the body: Medicine and the infinite reach of the mind. Boston: Shambhala.

-Taylor, E.J. (2007) What do I say? Talking to patients about spirituality. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundations Press.

About the Author:
Mary Ruth Lally, an RN for 26 years, works in a medical ward at an acute care hospital in South Australia. She is working on a book of real nursing stories with the hope of helping all nurses address the spritual needs of their paitents. She welcomes your comments and can be reached at


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