BY: Janet Izzo

As I travel and speak to nursing students across the nation on the topic “Nurses Can Make a Difference”, I am constantly inspired by their enthusiasm and excitement about the profession.

But when I mention the fact that nursing is “spiritual”, I sometimes sense uneasiness among a few members of the audience. Granted, no one jumps up and leaves. No one verbally disagrees with me or comments. The signs are subtle. People will shift in their chairs, fidget with a pen, or simply just look away.

What is Spirituality?

Apparently, the topic can be uncomfortable for some people. But since (in my opinion) spirituality is an important part of nursing, I have found it necessary to explain myself. To me, spirituality has nothing to do with religion or what church a person may belong to. It has nothing to do with anyone’s personal belief or how they practice that belief. It stems from the premise that all life is spiritual.

There have been times in my nursing career when the unexplained has occurred. I have been witness to profound experiences that cannot be measured, scientifically proven or understood. These experiences have changed my life. I have become a better, more sensitive nurse and human being because of them.

“Spiritual” Moments

The birth of a baby, for example, falls into the category of amazing, mind-blowing and yes, “spiritual.” Fathers who are big and strong and fearless can often fall to their knees in tears at the moment their child is born. I have seen men hold it in with all their might, not understanding the feelings they were experiencing until they heard me say, “It’s OK” and then they just folded. The joy we feel when a tiny baby cries out for the first time cannot be denied. Births are spiritual.

The unexpected (miraculous?) recovery of a patient who was not expected to recover also qualifies as spiritual. On the other hand, the death of a patient has left imprints on my heart, changed my thinking, and left me with significant understanding that I would never have had the opportunity or privilege of experiencing- except that I am a nurse and I was there.

Death, just as life, can hold precious moments for families and for nurses. The first time a nurse shares those final moments with another person, we are changed forever. The atmosphere in the room becomes surreal. Peace enters in. Love and respect for that patient (and for life itself) becomes immense. Of course, there may be tears and grief expressed by those who are present, but the moment is undeniably spiritual.

Coming Across Spiritual Moments

I have suggested to my audiences that if they don’t care to label these events as “spiritual”, they may choose a different word. I want them to know, however, and to be prepared for that time in their careers, when they will come face to face with emotional, life-altering experiences.

When they do, they must be ready. How will they deal with the moment? How will they conduct themselves? It’s an important subject to contemplate since others will be counting on them. When a patient asks for spiritual counsel or for the nurse to “pray” with them, what will her reaction be? There are options.

If the nurse feels comfortable with meditation or prayer, then by all means, participate. If not, appropriate and sensitive responses might be, “I would be happy to contact your priest/clergy for you” or “The hospital has a wonderful chaplain. Would you like me to call that person for you?” I once heard another nurse say simply, “Let’s share a few minutes of silence.” That was an amazing suggestion since it allowed everyone present to choose how they wanted to use their time.

Mother Theresa, the Catholic sister who devoted her entire life to caring for the poor and indigent of Calcutta, India once said, “We cannot do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” What a wonderful admonition for us as nurses to remember when caring for our patients! As the caretakers of humanity, we must be prepared for every situation that arises.

No matter how, where, or whom we serve, nursing may at times be difficult, and yet it is immensely rewarding. It can also be said that nursing is spiritual because life itself is spiritual. And as nurses, I think we would all agree. We deal with life in a big way!



Lead Nurse Africa is a Pan-African nursing organization dedicated to public health promotion and professional development.

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