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When struggling with the reality that your child has cancer, a hospital chaplain can provide a life raft in a churning sea of emotions.
As a parent you are hardwired to nurture and protect your children. A diagnosis of cancer hurls parents into unknown territory, creating chaos and confusion. Suddenly, you are forced to depend on others to protect and care for your child and to trust people you don’t know with your child’s life. No one, not even doctors, can tell you with 100 percent accuracy what the outcome of treatment will be.
It gives rise to universal questions – Why is this happening to my child, my family? Did I do something wrong? What do our struggles mean?
Chaplains can help parents come to terms with the fact that they don’t have total control, guide parents in making peace with the unknown, and to find hope in their circumstances.
Chaplains, also known as spiritual care specialists, are the part of the care team that concentrates on the spiritual well-being of patients and families.
“Spiritual” refers to the human need for connections — to a higher power, community or both — and to find meaning in life experiences. Learning your child has cancer is a major life change and may cause you to reassess your belief system. Chaplains offer support and care for patients and families no matter what their faith or path to spirituality might be, including those who are very religious, spiritual but not religious, or who do not believe in God.
Chaplains in pediatric cancer centers are clinically trained in the spiritual issues surrounding a diagnosis of cancer in children. Though many are ordained by particular religious bodies, chaplains serve families regardless of religion, faith group, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, or disability. They can meet you where you are and help you explore how faith and spirituality can be a source of strength and comfort.
In pediatric settings, chaplains may work with parents to provide education and counseling to address their—and their child’s—spiritual concerns. Dealing with a diagnosis of cancer in children is a grieving process because parents are hurt by the loss of their healthy child. Even when patients are cured, the experience of diagnosis and treatment changes families forever. Chaplains can also support parents as they grapple with bioethical concerns when making difficult decisions concerning treatment.
A cancer diagnosis means that parents’ lives will change radically as they accompany their child to daily appointments and treatments, and help their child deal with side effects, particularly if the treatment center is located far from home. When the health of one family member changes, the whole family is affected. Chaplains can help you identify your family’s spiritual strengths and weaknesses, history, and coping. They can assist you in identifying support people and guide you in maintaining relationships during times of distress.
Chaplains also work one-on-one with children, particularly preteens and teens. In fact, teenagers often need to share feelings and experiences with a trusted adult who is not a parent because they fear their true feelings will upset their parents.
Often a chaplain’s main role is to be an objective companion, listening to your thoughts and concerns without judgment. They can be a sounding board and help “normalize” the cancer experience by confirming that what you are feeling is shared by others going through the same journey. They can also help you examine any disturbing thoughts you may be having.
Chaplains can pray with you and for you. They can perform rituals and sacraments from your faith. They can put you in touch with local religious and spiritual centers or clergy from your tradition.
A chaplain may be assigned to your child’s care team. If you’re not sure, ask your nurse or social worker. Most hospitals have chaplains on call 24 hours a day. The department where they work may be called Spiritual Care, Pastoral Care, Chaplaincy, or a related name.
Reviewed: June 2018