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 suffering?"
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, 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 spiritual
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 their caregivers.
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
"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
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
"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 promised.
"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 wonderful
"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 explains.
"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 me.
"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
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
"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 Holy Communion.
"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
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.
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). Richard wept.
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
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.