PICK UP A NEWSPAPER or view
the news on TV or the Internet,
and mention of health care is
bound to surface. Health-care
issues are real: How do I stay
healthy, find proper care, pay the
bills? While pragmatic concerns
must be addressed, another essential
element for health and
wholeness is often overlooked or
underemphasized. That element is the spiritual
well-being of those who care for the sick,
the aged or the dying.
The "spirit" aspect of the patients' and caregivers' health may take a
backseat to medical challenges. Yet when spiritual caregiving is ignored,
patients and caregivers may lose the blessings of spiritual strength and
Individuals become caregivers in a variety of ways. Some choose
roles as medical professionals. Caregiving can be an accidental role, occasioned
by an urgent need involving friends or family members.
Spiritual issues vary from caregivers who provide care for years in
exhausting, frustrating situations to those called to give short-term
care. As diverse as situations may be, similar spiritual questions confront
all caregivers: "Who is my God?" and "Where is God in the midst of this
We Christians follow the example of Jesus the storyteller. In that
spirit I'd like to share some stories with you, stories gathered from my
conversations with other chaplains around the country and from my
work with Abbey Press in St. Meinrad, Indiana. I'm convinced that
these stories reflect fundamental human and spiritual needs. After all,
the heart of spiritual health is our belief that God's love accompanies
both caregiver and patient. These stories help us to see that. They are
used here with permission.
Ceese Belisle's father lives in Massachusetts, hundreds of miles from
her in Milford, Ohio. She says, "God is love in any form I perceive.
God is my sounding board. I tell God my concerns, seek direction,
thank Jesus and the Holy Spirit for positive insights I receive. God's love
surrounds me. God gets me to Dad when I'm not up to it. The warmth
in my heart when I hold Dad's hand, though he doesn't know I'm
there, reflects God's love."
She goes on: "God gets my crying, my fears and complaining, my
guilt at not moving back to care for Dad directly, my wondering what
happens after this life, my loneliness and turmoil. My faith feels weak
and strained at times. I'm thankful that I see God in my work and in the people around me."
Although Ceese cannot care for her
dad on a daily basis, she shares God's
love with others. A nurse trained in
Healing Touch therapy, she leads a
Church-approved Healing Touch program
(see sidebar), providing
spiritual and physical care for
parishioners. Ceese relies on the Holy
Trinity for wisdom, strength and a
peaceful spirit. She knows this is her
Prayer strengthens caregivers for tasks
they may not feel capable of performing.
As a resident home chaplain, Barb
Luebbers of Amelia, Ohio, understands
the spiritual needs of sick people and
When her husband had serious cancer
surgery, Barb needed to cleanse his
surgical wounds. That task almost
caused her to faint. "My source of
strength comes from the Holy Spirit
and God's angels. I pray that they are
with me as I bandage the holes cancer
made in my husband's face and ear. I
feel lightness, a supportive, loving presence
that helps me do what I must.
"Like children, we play a game called
Gratitude, naming things we are grateful
for. We are uplifted by acknowledging
God's blessings. Nature is important
in our lives—feeding birds, watching
deer try to get birdseed from the feeders.
God the Creator is present in the
created things we love.
"Journaling helps. I pour out my
heart to God. It's my avenue of letting
go and accepting what is. I pray to
Jesus, who knows the emotional and
physical aspects of suffering. I ask Mary
to assist me in accepting my loved one's
suffering. Mary knew acceptance; she
watched Jesus carry his cross and die an
unspeakable death. Praying for our sisters
and brothers everywhere who are
suffering or dying and for their caregivers
lessens our own concerns and is
Self-care is not selfish; it's essential in caregiving. Marcy Schutte of Milford, Ohio, is both a professional and family caregiver, a dual role that often exhausts her. She restores body, mind and spirit in several ways.
"My spiritual activities," she explains, "are walking, soaking in nature through senses of taste, smell, sight, feeling the temperature, hearing the quiet, the wind and rain. God is in nature. Thanksgiving comes quickly where nature abounds.
"My nightly bathtub time is a restoring ritual. I slip into the warm tub, close my eyes, talk to myself and to God. I may be mad and cursing, happy and singing or crying from frustration, overwhelmed by things I can't control, but it helps to talk out loud. I thank God for being blessed with water and a tub! Where my tub is, there my God is!
"As a caregiver, I feel an intimate closeness to God. God is my best friend! I don't see a face during prayer, just sense a presence that's always available. I pray to the Holy Spirit when I must do something I'm afraid to do or lack courage to do. My loved one seems comforted by mention of God or Mary, which reinforces the fact that we are from God. Everything is connected to God."
Marcy expresses what many caregivers share. "My 'church' is my parish community. Our caregivers' support group is facilitated by parishioners experienced in caregiving. Prayer concerns are shared via phone and e-mail. Volunteers visit nursing homes to provide spiritual care—praying the Rosary, bringing the Holy Eucharist, conducting prayer services. They are the hands of God."
Habits of a lifetime sustain caregivers
when difficulties arise. Mercy Sister
Fran Repka's father cared for his wife for
two years after her diagnosis of cancer.
"Watching your dad take care of your mom is like watching an angel,"
someone told Fran, who lives in Cincinnati.
"Dad was the ultimate caregiver,"
says Fran. "I know of no other 92-year-old
man who would care for his loving
89-year-old wife as he did: changing
her colostomy bag, monitoring her
medications, accompanying her to the
bathroom, assisting with bathing,
organizing visitors, offering hospitality,
tending to her personal and spiritual
requests. When Mom could no longer
attend Mass, Dad put on the TV Mass.
They said the Rosary every night.
"When we children insisted that Dad
needed help with Mom's care, he made
it clear that he and Mom had talked
about what she needed and Dad wanted
to do it. 'It's my call. Please respect
that,' he said. We took homemade
meals to Mom and Dad daily, washed
their laundry, did their housecleaning.
It was a privilege.
"But Dad was Mom's personal caregiver.
They were like two lovebirds.
Wear and tear on Dad became evident.
We worried. But if you asked Dad how
he felt, he said, 'I'm fit as a fiddle!' It was
a spiritual experience for him.
"For spiritual solitude, he tended his
huge garden. Dad loved nature and
enjoyed his garden, bringing in fruits to
show Mom. She died at home as she
wished—with Dad holding her hand as
"Two weeks later, Dad, who had not
had health problems, required emergency
bowel surgery. Afterward, for
nine wonderful days, I had the privilege
of being one of his caregivers.
"Dad's passing was beautiful. He
called his children to his bedside in
ICU, requesting that we take him home.
He was in charge and completed unfinished
business. He sang songs in Czech
with my aunts, reminiscing about good
times. He spent time with his seven
children, 26 grandchildren and 35
great-grandchildren. He requested
that we say the Rosary with him each
evening, 'for Mom.' One night he
stopped the Rosary, asking if we had
contemplated the second half of the
Hail Mary: 'pray for us sinners, now
and at the hour of our death.' 'It won't
be long now,' he added.
"Dad's bed was near a picture window
where he could see the green trees
of summer. He gave instructions how to
harvest his garden. Around his bed
Dad's pastor shared a moving eucharistic
liturgy. We thanked Dad for being a
"Caring for him those nine days was
a spiritual novena. It was pure gift. His
caring for Mom seemed to shorten his
life, but being with her on a deep spiritual
journey meant more to him than
anything else in the world. Now I
Guilt and resentment raise their nagging
heads when caregivers fret that
they are not doing all they might do
or when they feel that they are not
being appreciated. In Kentucky, Andrea
Conroy felt she had a bad attitude
about caregiving for her mother. "My
siblings were unable to help," Andrea
says. "Mother was angry that I wasn't
doing enough. 'The Lord loves a cheerful
giver' was a big deal for me and I
felt anything but cheerful," Andrea
"I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation
to talk about my difficulties.
The priest listened and then gave me
my penance. I was to go into the
church, walk the Stations of the Cross,
then come back and tell him how many
people looked like they were having a
good time. There were none. He said
the Christian walk is a walk of service.
That is what I had signed up to do,
both in the situation with my mother
and as a Christian. That resonated with
"Since Mother's death, I have forgotten
the difficult times. I celebrated
the anniversary of her death with my
siblings by listing 10 wonderful things
about Mother and what I thought she
had passed on to me. We ended well. I
don't lose a moment's sleep now, thinking
I should have or could have done
more. After the Reconciliation, I looked
on caregiving as Christian service rather
than the duty of a frequently unappreciated
daughter. That made all the difference."
The sacraments of the Catholic
Church sustain caregivers who feel
stretched beyond their abilities.
Gloria Jarrett's caregiving hangs especially
on the Holy Eucharist. She states,
"Jesus said, 'This is my body' and 'This
is my blood.' Do we think he was kidding?
Jesus said, 'Do this in memory of
me.' What part of 'Do this' don't we
understand? I always believed that I
was born into a Catholic family because
that's where God wanted me. It's who
I am and where I was meant to be. I ask,
'What can I do for you, Lord?'"
Answers come. Gloria, who lives in
Miamiville, Ohio, became a kidney
donor for her brother. She serves in a nursing home and in her parish's
bereavement ministry. Then came her
husband's diagnosis of a rare, serious
blood disorder, and doctors gave him a
month to live. The family gathered. A
do-not-resuscitate order was advised.
Hospice was notified; equipment was
ordered for his care at home.
Gloria remembers, "We came to the
conclusion that the doctor had his say;
now we would see what God wanted.
I believe when we put things in God's
hands, we surrender them to his will.
Whether God answers yes or no, we
accept whatever happens—no whining
or getting mad if God wants something
different from what we want. I
attribute my strength of spirit and body
to a supernatural gift from God.
"During those months when my husband
was very ill, I reached for God
on my knees and sought the Communion
of Saints to pray with me. I found
comfort in novenas and praying
Rosaries. I visited the church, lit candles,
prayed and found someone to give me
"A year beyond diagnosis, my husband
enjoys a good quality of life. There
are no easy answers about how long this
will continue. Each day is precious.
Our marriage and love have never been
stronger. In the midst of illness and
adversity, you experience great blessings."
Caregivers often share with patients
the wisdom of Scripture and God's
mercy. A hospice visitor, Deacon Amado
Lim of Blue Ash, Ohio, knew Richard
well. World War II veteran, great storyteller,
man with a fine sense of humor,
Richard (name has been changed) was
a joy to visit. Then one evening Deacon
Lim noted that he looked unusually
sad. "I asked him why," says the deacon.
"He said he was afraid."
Richard continued, "I've shared many
stories, but there's one story I've not
told you or anyone." When Richard's
unit attacked a Nazi hiding place in
Belgium, they met heavy fire and his
best friend was mortally wounded.
"I became livid," Richard said. "I entered
the building with my gun blazing.
I saw two Nazi soldiers fall. I rushed
toward them. They sprawled on the
floor, covered with blood. I saw their
faces. They were barely 12 years old—children! They didn't say anything, just
looked at me. Their faces were pleading,
begging for mercy. My adrenaline
pumped furiously. I shot them both.
The faces of those boys have haunted me
ever since. I cannot erase their images
from my mind. Now I'm dying. I'm
afraid to stand before God. He'll never
forgive me for what I did to those boys."
Deacon Lim invited Richard to describe
God. To Richard, God was a just
God who rewards good and punishes
evil. Voice trembling, Richard said that
he couldn't imagine God forgiving anyone
who hurts children.
Healing Touch Ministry combines Christian care and prayer to maintain
wellness and relieve suffering. Healing Touch Program™ techniques
are nondenominational. Practitioners often see themselves as conduits
of God's love, light and energy.
Deacon Lim asked Richard to read
aloud Bible stories describing God's
mercy. When the repentant criminal
crucified on Calvary begged, "Jesus,
remember me when you come into
your kingdom," Jesus replied, "Amen,
I say to you, today you will be with
me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42-43).
When Deacon Lim returned later,
Richard smiled. "I'm no longer afraid.
Jesus forgave the criminal. He forgives
me because he knows how sorry I am."
Richard died two days later.
As believers in a merciful, loving
God, in Jesus who sustains us with his
body and blood in the Eucharist and
offers forgiveness through the Sacrament
of Reconciliation and who shares
in the Holy Spirit's comforting presence,
caregivers possess a spiritual
wealth that sustains them and those
for whom they care.
Patients and caregivers gain the blessings
of spiritual strength and renewal if
spiritual caregiving is recognized and
nurtured. Caregivers are truly sacraments
of God's love.
Patricia Normile is a retired hospital chaplain, retreat
director, teacher and columnist for National Catholic
Reporter's Eucharistic Minister. She is the author of
John Dear on Peace: An Introduction to His Life and
Work (St. Anthony Messenger Press), several books
for caregivers and numerous CareNotes and PrayerNotes for Abbey Press.