Moving Beyond Helplessness

In my working with individuals who are struggling with their grief, one of the most difficult obstacles I’ve had is the sense of helplessness that sometimes accompanies grief. I made a call the other day to the wife of a past patient the other day, and she expressed her feelings this way: “You can’t help me.” She went on to talk about how she and her husband did absolutely everything together and how they planned on growing old together. Life without him was unimaginable. Now, two years after his death, every day feels worse than the day before. She has no picture of a future without him, feels unmoored and purposeless, and lacks a sense of her own identity. She has panic attacks and is very depressed most of the time. Worst of all though is her feeling that there’s nothing I or anyone else could do to help her. Continue reading

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Self-Disclosure: How Much is Too Much?

A reader asked me a while ago about the appropriate use of self-disclosure and I thought that was a great topic to write about more in depth. It can be a touchy subject, as I expect we have all met those who engage in too much self-disclosure with those we support. To completely avoid self-disclosure though is to not use our most valuable and powerful tool, our own story. Continue reading

528 Hertz

“You know that the universe vibrates at 528 Hz, right?”

This was only part of the first conversation I had with Neil*, who had just come on hospice and was living at home with with his mother. It was my initial assessment with him, and it was already off to an interesting start. When I arrived for our meeting time he wasn’t available. The neighbors in his apartment building who were sitting outside said that he had just gone out to the local Rite-Aid with his girlfriend. So I waited on the patio until he arrived.

Neil right off the bat struck me as an interesting guy. He was in his mid-50’s, and his long white hair, thin build, pale Hawaiian shirt and straw fedora made him look like a wandering beachcomber. He carried a portable oxygen concentrator, the only visible indicator of his end-stage lung cancer. “Hey man! Sorry I’m late. I had to go get my meds and some toothpaste.” He introduced me to his girlfriend who was with him and neighbors and then escorted me inside, chatting the whole time. Continue reading

The Bookshelf: “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded?”, by Dwight Carlson

The relationship between body, mind and soul is one of the most complicated and least understood in the modern world. One reason is that while the three certainly seem distinguishable (at least to those who believe we have a soul) the boundaries are extremely hazy. Is depression a result of a chemical imbalance, a poor self-image, or guilt from personal sin? How you answer this question will be a reflection of not simply your faith but your worldview as well (and the answer is most probably “yes” to all three). Continue reading

Serving the Servers: How Chaplains Can Help Prevent Burnout

The Rev Daphne Preece (right) gives support to a member of staff. Photograph: Milton Keynes University hospital NHS foundation trust/The Guardian

Burnout is a common problem for those in helping professions, and while the word or term “burnout” may be used without much thought at times, it is a real problem with specific features. Maslach noted that the features of burnout are multifaceted, including  “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment”. Since caregiver burnout was first described in the early ’70’s a great deal of material has been written in order to study its effects and possible ways to alleviate it. Because of their visible role in the workplaces where they serve, chaplains can become a resource to help their coworkers prevent burnout and provide staff support as well as indirectly provide better patient outcomes.

Continue reading

The Bookshelf: “Bradshaw On: The Family”, by John Bradshaw

223513I’m going to start right off by saying that this book will probably garner some strong reactions. John Bradshaw rose to prominence and popularity through PBS specials in the ’80s that, at the time, were controversial not only for their pop-psychology and soft spirituality but for their criticism of the family system as a source of dysfunction. Yet I found this book pivotal in my CPE training and helpful for understanding how individuals aren’t nearly as “individual” as we think.

Bradshaw On: The Family comes on the heels of the social upheaval of the late ’60’s and the cultural narcissism of ’70’s America. Popular culture was trying hard to emancipate itself from traditional societal and religious norms. This cultural zeitgeist runs through this book and therefore may turn some off. However don’t disregard it as mere “psychobabble”; it has ideas well worth considering. Continue reading

Repost in Response to John Piper: The Chaplain and Mental Illness

Recently John Piper, through his Desiring God twitter account, sent out the following message: “Stop seeking mental health in the mirror of self-analysis, and start drinking in the remedies of God in nature.” The result was a backlash from many concerned with this apparent disregard for the nature of mental illness. A friend of mine told me afterward that he had recently lost a friend to suicide and that this sentiment was not helpful in the least.

Piper later walked back on his statement a bit, adding the context of the statement for clarification, noting that “mental health” meant something different 40 years ago.

To be quite honest, the suggestions included in the text (“10 Resolutions for Mental Health”) were quite interesting and would be beneficial for anyone. I recommend you read them. However couching this advice for “mental health”, knowing that true mental health is not just an intellectual endeavor but involves the interplay of biology and psychology as well, is still irresponsible.

Many shared their own stories of the battle between faith and true mental illness.

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Christianity today still has much to learn about mental illness. Following is a post I originally wrote in 2015 which speaks to this further. Continue reading

“I wait to see if they come back”: Shelly and the Pain of Love

“My life’s been like a Stephen King novel.”

That was how “Shelly” described her life to me, and it turned out to be fairly accurate.

I had been requested to see Shelly at a skilled facility by the staff there. She had been the roommate of one of our patients who had died recently (I’ll call her Mrs. Bea), and the staff felt that she could use some support. I don’t get requests for visits like these often, and usually when I do I find that it’s more often the staff that have issues with coping rather than the person they’re directing me to. That was not the case here. Continue reading

In Defense of “Feel Good” Theology

I need this mug

I want to first state that this is not going to be a bashing of traditional, orthodox Christian theology. Orthodoxy certainly has its place, and has earned it over thousands of years. Lately it’s come under quite a bit of fire in spots, especially regarding such things as its view of homosexuality, penal substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of hell and so on. This is not about the merits or problems with conservative theology against progressive theology. Neither is this about defending “health-and-wealth” theology, which is an entirely different subject altogether I think. What I do want to do is give a (qualified) defense of what many call “feel good” theology, “me-ology” or “watered down” theology, which for the sake of discussion is teaching or theology that tends to favor the emotional over the intellectual, and minimize talk of God’s judgment (sin, hell and so on) in favor of God’s love (grace, forgiveness). It’s one of the most derided forms of faith, and often for good reason. However I am going to say that in some circumstances it’s not a bad thing. Continue reading

Getting Your Foot in the Door: 8 Ways to reduce “declines” for chaplains

the chaplain makes his rounds

One issue that I see frequently coming across chaplain discussion boards is that many have increasing numbers of those declining chaplain support. One poster, a hospice chaplain in Georgia, said her declines went from 10% five years ago to about 35% now.

Many believe that the refusal of spiritual support is due to a decline in religiosity overall in our country and culture. That may be true, but I don’t think it accounts for the majority of declines. Even though the Pew Research Center found a nearly 8 point percentage drop in those professing Christianity between 2007 and 2014, about 70% of Americans still identify as a member of some Christian church or faith group. From my own experience I can say as that I have had many accepting of chaplain support who were atheist or agnostic, or believed in God but did not consider themselves religious.  And no these were not millennials, these were your typical elderly hospice patient. Continue reading