Spiritual Distress—What does it Mean?
People entering hospice sometimes carry an extra burden: the burden of spiritual distress. Spiritual distress is the result of a disruption in a person’s beliefs or value system. This can affect the individual’s entire sense of well-being. Spiritual distress is most often visible through emotional disturbance. This may take such forms as the fear of dying, anger and rage, a highly anxious state, or even depression and a sense of hopelessness.
Those suffering from spiritual distress may question the meaning of life or may be angry with God. Sometimes they feel a sense of emptiness or realize that nothing makes sense anymore. They may make comments like, “I feel like I’m falling apart,” nothing feels stable anymore,” or “I feel like things are just spinning out of control.” Some may not only give up hope, some may even feel suicidal.
Interestingly, even those who formerly have expressed a strong sense of faith may suddenly reject or neglect previous beliefs or practices. What may be surprising is that those without strong religious convictions may also experience spiritual distress because they find themselves without adequate resources upon which to draw.
Chaplains focus on helping patients and their families in spiritual distress by establishing rapport and a caring relationship. We feel that it is important to provide a nonjudgmental atmosphere, laying aside our own particular beliefs to help patients renew their own and rediscover hope within themselves. We offer a supportive presence and provide time to listen. We spend time with our patients and family members, reviewing their lives in order to assist them in recognizing purpose, value, and meaning. In this, we are able to explore issues of guilt and remorse, the possibility of forgiveness, and the hope of reconciliation with God and with others. We also help them find comfort, peace, and hope that focuses on healing rather than on curing.
Spiritual distress may be due to a variety of factors such as:
- Feeling a sense of anger and injustice about having a life-threatening illness
- Experiencing losses in many aspects of one’s life because of the illness
- Feeling abandoned by friends, family, or God
- Struggling to make sense of physical and emotional pain, suffering and death
- Wondering about the meaning of one’s life
- Worrying about issues of life after death