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Parish Nurses

Parish Nurses

by John S. Munday and Fran Wohlenhaus-Munday

One of the persons who can be a great help for mourners at any time on their path to healing is the parish nurse. Of course, not every church has a nurse on its staff, but we strongly believe that such a person, whether paid staff or a volunteer, can make a great difference in the whole life of a congregation.

One church we visited in February had recently installed a parish nurse. We met her as she was finishing up her certification procedure—required by state law in Florida. She is supervised by someone on the staff of a regional hospital, and she reports to the pastors of the church.

We attended a meeting where the pastoral care committee met with her to discuss her role in the congregation. She patiently explained what she saw were her duties, and several times stressed her requirement to maintain the confidences of those with whom she met in her work. She seemed to be quite well qualified, and when we spoke privately with her, we all used the same grief counseling language.

Some weeks later we talked several times with a woman we know whose husband had died less than a year ago. We have been talking with her in a quiet way about her walk on her own path seeking healing. She excitedly described a visit from the parish nurse, saying, “The poor woman. I started talking about my husband, and I didn’t stop for two hours. She just listened and listened.”

“That’s her job,” we replied, pleased to know that the nurse didn’t offer magic answers or simple platitudes alluding to healing. “Listening is the best thing anyone can do,” we added.

A church near our home here in Minnesota also has a parish nurse. We spent some time with her and learned more about this important aspect of the nursing profession. This lady, a registered nurse (as parish nurses are required to be), shared with us some information about her specialized training and education. The philosophy of parish nurses includes a belief that, “The parish nurse role reclaims the historic roots of health and healing found in many religious traditions. Parish nurses live out the early work of monks, nuns, deacons and deaconesses, church nurses, traditional healers and the nursing profession itself.”

Sometimes, the parish nurse is called to respond to the needs of parish members who are seriously ill, in the hospital, at bedside. She, or he, talks to people, particularly about their questions and will even sit in when a doctor speaks to the family of a patient. Parish nurses should be good at facilitating the conversations. In this nurse’s training, one whole day was on bereavement, mostly in role playing and discussion. She told us, “We learned how to do what is needed in the hospital. Anointing with oil has been very helpful. When I come back for a second visit, people say that they felt something good had happened.”

We asked her to talk about prayer. She observed that prayer by a nurse is not ordinarily done in larger hospitals and many hospital-based nurses don’t like to pray with patients. “Here, with the congregation, it’s a given, but not so in the hospital. A nurse came into a patient’s room and saw me praying with the patient, and couldn’t believe it. But I have to, I want to pray with them.”

When we spoke with the nurse, we talked about some of the differences between the parish and the hospital. “Last year,” the nurse said, “We had too many funerals, especially in the spring, and it was really difficult.” She named some of the people who had died, and her expression showed the pain of those memories.

Jack observed that the first-year anniversaries of those deaths were occurring and asked if part of her work included follow-up calls or visits. It does.

This nurse does not pretend to have all the answers. “I’m not a bereavement counselor and I rely on people who are, like you both are.” We remembered the time when a person left the worship service in obvious distress. Both this nurse and Fran sat with her, listened to the emotional pain being expressed over an expected death in the family. We learned, not surprisingly, that while we had been in contact with that person over the months since that emotional event, so had she in her work as parish nurse.

A parish nurse fills an important place in many people’s lives. The visit by the nurse to the hospital, or to the home, offers comfort to the mourners and relief to those whose responsibilities are to care for them. Recently we talked with a pastor who spent time at hospitals with three different women, all elderly, over just about a month, all in the same state of failing health. He officiated at each of the three funerals. He said he had a hard time facing them, because the memory of the first one had not faded safely before the second one brought it back, and then the third death and funeral seemed, he said, to almost overwhelm him. He too has spent time with a parish nurse, dealing with his own grief.

Another friend of ours could have and should have had help from a parish nurse. She worked in a marrow transplant unit where fifty percent of the children and young adults did not survive, and also worked with hemophiliacs who tested positive for HIV. She said she had been at the bedside of over 150 patients who died. In time, she says, she burned out; she could no longer care for the dying because the pain she felt had become too intense. She said she left nursing in 1999. Of course, relatives of each of those patients felt a much more intense pain. However, the cumulative force of her profession eventually took its toll. She now does other things. Intervention by a parish nurse at the time of dying might have saved her career.

We know that parish nurses can take on some of this burden, relieving the long term caregivers and other professionals who are affected by end-of-life events in those they care for. A pastor we know meets with the parish nurse on every Monday to suggest that she contact one person or another based on his observations during and after worship. “So and so didn’t look well,” or “Please check on so and so.” This pastor also makes connections, putting people who are further down the path to healing in touch with the newly bereaved.

Bereavement is painful. We all know that. But when we work together, as mourners, nurses and doctors, clergy, friends and family, we can share the load with each other. It’s just as heavy, but with more of us being there for the newly bereaved, we can make a difference. Isn’t that our calling?

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About the Author

John (Jack) Munday is a bereaved step-parent who knew Marlys and who had her permission to marry her mother, Fran, and take care of her forever. In addition to the joint writing with Fran of Surviving The Death of a Child (Westminster/John Knox, 1995) and their column, The Path To Healing in a local newspaper, he has written the story of Marlys’s murder in Justice For Marlys (University of Minnesota Press) and a bereavement support group book, Overcoming Grief: Joining and Participating in Bereavement Support Groups (ACTA Publishing). His novel, Cilantro, Not Coriander, also about a bereaved parent, was published by Plain View Press in the fall of 2009. Jack has lived with memories of Marlys for more years than she lived on earth and has adopted her in his heart.