“A Ministry of Presence” through a Difficult Diagnosis

Receiving a difficult diagnosis can often send patients into an emotional and spiritual tailspin. They may feel that the “bottom has fallen out” and that they have lost control. Along with the physical losses and fear comes the loss of many hopes and dreams for one’s future. As chaplains, we are often called upon to join patients and families on this journey.

One of the first steps is to discern what is most important to the patient and family based on their values and spirituality. We do this through listening carefully to their stories. We look at it as an opportunity to listen with our whole selves…with our ears, eyes, hands and hearts.

We also walk this journey with patients by not minimizing what they are going through. We allow them to feel what they feel, and help them name those feelings and normalize that feelings like anger and even relief are all possible. Joining patients on this journey requires our willingness to sit in the pain, fear, doubt and uncertainty that may come with the diagnosis. We don’t pretend that we have the answers or that we can fix anything. Instead, we make ourselves vulnerable with our humanity as we invite the patient to be vulnerable with us. Ultimately, our role as chaplain is to provide what we often refer to as “a ministry of presence.”

Sometimes a patient dealing with a difficult diagnosis may find healing and meaning through what we call “ritual care.” For some that includes prayer, meditation, sacred readings, music, storytelling, visual arts or other rituals. We listen for the rituals that may bring meaningful comfort to the patient and their individual spiritual understanding, always looking for places where the sacred can be found.

As chaplains we also know that we are a part of a larger interdisciplinary care team (physicians, nurses, case managers, etc.) for our patients and families. We communicate our patient care in ways that informs the work and support of this broader team.

Although it is never easy to see a patient endure the news of a difficult diagnosis, we know it happens daily in a healthcare environment. When it does, we hope to be there to walk this path with patients and families with courage, hope and love.

By the Rev. Amanda Jones, Director of Pastoral Care and the Roper St. Francis Healthcare Pastoral Team