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When is it okay to pray with a patient?

When is it okay to pray with a patient? We felt it was time to explore the issue when we received this letter from a recent graduate who wrote to Scrubs about her dilemma.

“I had a very ill patient who wanted to pray with me, but I felt weird participating in prayer, especially because some of my colleagues were present. I didn’t want to offend anyone who may not have my same religious beliefs or even be religious at all.” – Gretchen

Gretchen, you are not alone. Even a seasoned nurse can have moments of doubt when it comes to prayer. Gloria G. King, RN, BSN, of Georgia writes:

“I have been a nurse for 27 years in critical care and trauma. One night I just happened to be in the ER when they brought in a 43-year-old male having an acute MI. He was alone, frightened and in a state of panic. All the nurses and staff were working on his physical needs.

“I decided to stay, hold his hand, and see if I could help calm him while the staff did their work. Suddenly, he looked at me and said, ‘Pray for me, please, now, pray for me.’ I admit, I felt a bit awkward. I am a Christian, so I had no problem with praying, but the room was full of the noise, hustling and commotion of ER staff stabilizing a patient. My staff and peers were all present. I did momentarily wonder if it was okay to pray, here, right now. I didn’t want to offend anyone in the room…”

What should she have done? As a new nurse, you know you want to give your patients what they need without hesitation. So we’ve asked Revs. Dennis Kenny and Amy Greene of the Spiritual Care Department at Cleveland Clinic what they feel the role of prayer is in hospitals and how a nurse can incorporate prayer into his/her practice.

“It’s interesting (and heartening to us chaplains) that a recent Timemagazine cover story on faith and healing claimed that 94 percent of patients in a survey said it would be all right with them if their doctors asked about their religious beliefs. This seems to tell us that people do naturally see the connection between their faith and their health.

“Prayer is positive (hopefully) energy directed toward the Source of all Wisdom uttered on our own or another’s behalf. Those who engage in it know its benefits without having to read statistics. Unless it’s done with malicious intent, it’s never harmful.”

So should a nurse pray with his or her patient?

The reverend says: “As the persons in charge of spiritual care and chaplaincy training at Cleveland Clinic, we believe definitely “Yes, if. . .” that is, “if you can be open to believing that there is more than one right way to pray.” If your way of praying (including things that may seem like obvious ‘givens’ such as how to refer to the Almighty) is the only one you’re comfortable with, you might want to consider a few tips before you proceed.”

Tips for praying with your patients

  • The most important thing is to clarify what will be the most helpful for the patient, rather than what you think they need. This is good practice anyway– assume nothing.
  • Ask directly what the patient wants to pray about, and allow the patient to speak his or her own prayers, too.
  • Have a conversation about the patient’s beliefs– ask where he or she sees God in the current crisis.
  • Ask about which images of God would be most helpful for the patient at this time.  Is it the Good Shepherd?  The Holy Spirit?  Allah the Most Merciful?  The answer might surprise you.

The reverends agree: “Bottom line – be respectful, don’t impose, don’t assume anything and then, go for it.”

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11 Responses to When is it okay to pray with a patient?

  1. mah

    Hi,
    i want u to help us! plz announce this news to the world!
    “PRAY FOR HAMED’S HEALTH, WE WANT GOD TO GIVE BACK HIS HEALTH AND WE LOVE TO SEE HIM HEALTHY,HAPPY BESIDES HIS FIANCE & FAMILY”
    HIS FULL NAME IS HAMED ZARE

  2. Pam Rossano

    I work in L+D. When we have a fetal demise very often the parents want to Baptize their baby. We do get a Priest to Bless their baby and the parents, But the Parents remember Limbo for unBaptized babies from old fashioned beliefs. So I provide Holy water and a Shell and show the Parents how to Baptize their Baby who has died> Who knows when the soul actually leaves the little Baby> I follow the parents beliefs.usually they want an Our father Hail Mary. They are so grateful for this memory of their short time.
    It also comforts me.

  3. Helen Marshall

    I have never initiated a prayer out loud in front of a patient. (I have prayed for a pt. silently in an emergency) but I have joined in prayer many times with a pt., his family/clergy etc. If a pt. has a faith it is very comforting to them to know that their nurse has faith also. Though I have worked mostly Catholic hospitals and am not a Catholic, I have still gone to the Catholic chapel and prayed for and lit candles for my Catholic pt’s. In Arizona I was a part of a Native American “blessing and healing ceremony” (I guess that is what you’d call it) before a patient had major surgery. All patients have fears and respecting their faiths and being a part of what makes them feel better makes the pt. know you respect them and want to be a part of their healing.

  4. Devora

    This is a difficult situation. What is the patient’s reason for wanting to pray with you? I am an orthodox Jew and am comfortable with prayer,have prayed with patientd of many religions however, I have encountered patients with alternate agendas. I have had Evangelical Christian patients who were on a mission to convert me (they stated that this was so) and made me very uncomfortable. On the other hand I am a resource to nurses taking care of Jewish patients and enjoy this aspect of my job. I have assisted our Jewish chaplain as well.

  5. Beth Q

    I would never, and have never, instigated a prayer or other religious rite with any of my patients. I am agnostic, and I feel that every person has a right to their own beliefs. Now, in assessing my patients, I have asked about their spiritual beliefs, I have participated in prayer and other religious rites at the request of my patients and families, and I always do this as a nurse supporting my patients’ spiritual health. In my 18 years in this profession, I have found that spiritual health is just as important as mental and physical health. If a nurse feels uncomfortable with assisting a patient in prayer or other religious rites, it is totally appropriate to ask another nurse to do it, or consult spiritual care or clergy.

  6. Mary Fanning

    I have worked in health care all my life since i was 18. Worked alot with death & dying and in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

    I have had many come to me for prayer. They knew i was a christian. I have prayed at the bedside of the dying and they wanted it. Family wanted it.
    As an administrator of an Assisted Living Facility, patients would come to my office and ask, will you pray for me.

    So i say, pray for them. You know your boundries, and if they are asking you to pray, no policy in the world should say don’t, as it might offend someone working there. It is about the patient, not the co-workers or staff.
    Mary Fanning

  7. Jackie

    I work in a Pre-op department and patients are often prayed for before surgery. Sometimes it’s just their family/friends, sometimes clergy is involved. I ask if the patient minds if I join the prayer. I’ve never been refused. It seems to help them to know that their nurse believes in a higher power. I often tell them, as they’re going to the OR, “good luck and God bless”–and this remark usually gets me a smile and a “thank you!”

  8. marykrey RN

    I have been a nurse for 21 years and feel like spiritual support is an important part of our care for patientis…On our admission assessment they are asked for religious preference and whether spiritual support is requested or needed during their stay. if yes, then it automatically transfers to Patient services to request Spiritual support.

    I have prayed with patients that I know personally and i feel more comfortable praying with somebody before or after work, so I am not on the clock.I have also told patients that I am keeping them in my prayers. They are so grateful and comforted. I am also able to call our minister for a patient if they would like to see someone.

  9. Candace RN

    I feel that if a patient asks for prayer, then we should either pray or ask another nurse to fulfill the patient’s request. I have prayed for patients and have witnessed a sense of calming and vital signs return to more normal levels. I often will shut the door to their room for more privacy. It can be awkward when co-workers are within earshot.

  10. SHERRY

    I HAVE BEEN A NURSE FOR 11 YEARS NOW AND HAVE NO PROBLEM PRAYING FOR A PT. PRAYER CAN GIVE ONE HOPE AND STRENGTH IN HIS OR HER TIME OF DESPERATION. I HAVE ALSO SEEN GOD BRING COMPLETE HEALING PHYSICALLY TO SOME AND THEN SOME WHO WERE HEALED SPIRITUALLY AND WENT ON TO BE WITH OUR LORD AND SAVIOR. I HOWEVER AM VERY SENSITIVE TO THEM AND THEIR BELIEFS AND DO NOT CROSS THE LINE BECAUSE OF THE RESPECT I HAVE FOR THEM. WHO KNOWS SOME DAY I MAY BE IN A SITUATION AS THIS AND I HOPE GOD WOULD PLACE A PRAYING NURSE OR CNA IN MY PATH TO BRING HOPE AND SECURITY TO ME.

  11. debthenurse

    I have the good fortune of being a nurse who works every area of nursing-in and out of the hospital setting. But, you do need to know about the situation with your patient.

    *You need to be asked.
    *A hospice patient the answer is usually yes-pray with patient or family members.
    *You need to be as nonjudgemental as possible-the drunk who caused motor vehicle accident, a rapist who was shot by the police department(things that have happened to me in the ER) remember you can’t pick your patients-we treat every human to best of our ability and understanding.
    *In the psych nursing area you must be even more familiar with the patient’s history, med-compliance and delusional status.
    *Follow your gut feelings…but follow your hospital/organization’s policy…KNOW YOUR HOSPITAL’S POLICY. Some hospitals want your to call the clergy who are on site or a social worker.
    *There are times when you need to direct the families to the hospital chapal.
    *Know the culture of the patient-Remember those classes in nursing school-cultural sensitivity is very important.

    Something simple things like hypertension will frequently be helped with hand holding and helping the patient get in touch with his/her higher power, or pleasant past experiences, breathing techniques as you model them for the patient (or family member) and help them out of a hyperventilating response to their current circumstances.

    If you feel uncomfortable, too busy, or afraid of making a cultural error…CALL YOUR SUPERVISOR…that is what we are there for…well, that’s one of the things we are good at.

    Good Luck, and may the universe protect you and guide your hands and thoughts.

    debthe nurse

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