Humanism and Spiritual Care

June 3rd, 2013

What on earth does have humanism have to do with spiritual care? That was the first question I had to ask myself on receiving an invitation to take part in a conference at Princess Alice Hospice on Spiritual Care at the End of Life.

 I decided to go with a rough working definition of “the spirit” as being synonymous with the personality – whatever the whole is that is more than the sum of our emotions, knowledge, experience, attitudes and so on. Because there is no doubt that everybody we deal with as humanist funeral celebrants has “spiritual” needs that we have to take account of if not actually deal with.

 My role in the conference, along with representatives of the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist communities, was to host one of seven “market place” sessions, repeated three times, which delegates would attend in rotation. My seminar room held about a dozen people, and so for 30 minutes at a time I welcomed three full houses composed of nurses, social workers, academics and clergy, all interested to know how a humanist approaches spiritual care.

 I had sat in on two keynote addresses earlier in the day, so had some idea of the areas that were being dealt with, and the kind of questions that were likely to come up. One surprising aspect was the predominantly non-religious approach adopted by both speakers – Margaret Holloway, Professor of Social Work and Director of the Centre for Spiritual Studies at Hull University, and Wilf McSherry, Professor in Dignity of Care for Older People at Shrewsbury & Telford Hospital Trust.

One of Margaret’s early slides set the tone: titled Humanistic Spirituality, it proposed that “Spirituality is experienced through relationships…which may be with an external or “higher” source, or…proximate; for example, sources of spiritual strength may be experienced through family, friends or communities”.

 At that point, I felt myself relax: not the only non-believer in the room, then. Not by a long chalk, as it turned out. 

Her section on spiritual need assessment suggested that the process itself can be a therapeutic intervention: a familiar idea to us as humanist funeral celebrants. While it is never our primary intention, a family visit will usually give some reassurance about the whole process. That issue was raised by an Anglican priest in one of the market place sessions: do we maintain any continuing relationship with the families? No, we don’t, because we are not bereavement counsellors, and besides we don’t work within a pastoral structure. But I did make the point that if a family doesn’t feel better as a result of our intervention, then we haven’t done much of a job.

Margaret’s last slide quoted one of her interviewees: “I think that very few people nowadays would seem to see that the purpose of a funeral is to serve a higher being but there is often a sense of serving a higher meaning….that meaning is spiritual but it’s not defined.  “There was a sense in which it was the end of his natural life span….a sense of looking at the richness of what had been achieved…..it was important for him to make sense of “God” before, because he didn’t expect anything coming beyond.”

 Wilf began his presentation by pointing out how health care and spirituality, traditionally integrated through the notions of vocation and self-sacrifice, have become separated, and went on to discuss some ways in which this might be reversed.  It seems that not everyone on “our” side of the fence thinks it should. I found myself disagreeing, quite emphatically, with some of the remarks attributed to people within the secular movement. Apparently the NSS has condemned a hospital scheme to assess patients’ spiritual needs as a “misuse of NHS resources” – a case, it seems to me, of confusing spiritual with religious.

One delegate told me of a humanist celebrant who denied having any spiritual dimension or spiritual life of his own, which prompted me to wonder if he ever listened to music or felt any emotional response to the natural world.

And in an article for Nursing Standard, JohnPaley – who was at the conference and came into one of my market place sessions – attacked the very idea of spiritual care in a health care setting: “…hiding it behind these themes represents an attempt to create a space for religious sensibilities in health care, while making it possible to deny such a space has been created. For this reason, we need a debate on the propriety of peddling spirituality in health care”.  The debates that took place, certainly in my presence, seemed to conclude that as spirituality is not the same as religion, and is important to anybody approaching the end of their life, then such “peddling” is entirely legitimate if it is done with due sensitivity and respect for the individual.

At the end of the afternoon, each of the “faith group” representatives was invited to give a two-minute summary of their experience of the day. For my part, I was grateful for the opportunity to explain the humanist approach to death and dying, and to have my view of spirituality clarified and reinforced. It might not be a word we would normally choose to use, but it is certainly something that we are dealing with every time we engage with the facts of death and bereavement.

 Jim Trimmer