【January 2016】3- How to Provide Spiritual Care to Terminally Ill Patients

Jeng-fong Chiou (Board of Hospice Foundation of Taiwan Vice Superintendent of Taipei Medical University Hospital)

Dr. John Miller, who spends his entire life on dying well research, defined a “good death” as “dying without regrets and with a peaceful spiritual mind”. For a doctor who has cared for thousands of patients, Dr. Miller specifically endorsed the “spiritual” aspect of dying. Though the medical skills and equipment in Taiwan have advanced in recent years, not everyone can be assured of a good death. The key to this question, I believe, has to do with having a peaceful spiritual mind.

The spirituality of people has many different aspects, each of which requires its fulfillment. However, as people grow older with more experience, their satisfaction will be different, too. If spiritual needs are not being satisfied, this will cause “spiritual distress”. Hence, spiritual gratification needs to be affirmed and reinforced until the very last second of people’s lives. Spiritual care is helping people fulfilling their spiritual needs by resolving their distresses and balancing their spirits.

The oncology team from the Taipei Medical University Hospital has concluded the Five Aspects and Three Stages of spiritual care from their 17 years of consultation experience with terminally ill patients and their families. With this guide, the oncology team hopes to provide a general yet solid theory for clinical spiritual care professionals to further analyze and discuss the spiritual care process.

Aspect 1: The Meaning of Life and Its Value

Everyone wishes to find the meaning and value of their lives, and to understand the purpose behind all of this. Many live their lives in difficulties, but can’t find meaning in life and are left with regrets. Many even seem accomplished by social standards, yet still feel frustrated for not finding the core values in life. 

In the following story, we shall demonstrate how clinical professionals can assist terminally ill patients to find the meaning of their lives through guidance, and help the patients define their lives as valuable and full.

“The Flavor of Childhood Memories - Oyster Vermicelli” 

Uncle Wang, a 67 year-old terminal liver cancer patient, feels there is no point to carry on with his dull life and asks the nurses frequently: “Is there any way for me to die earlier pain free?”. 

One day I ask him: “Is there anything you would like to do and would feel happy that you have done it?”
“Yes” he replies. “If I could have a taste of that oyster vermicelli from my childhood one more time, I would be very, very happy. I miss that taste a lot.”

The search team forms quickly and sets off to Uncle Wang’s neighborhood in search of the oyster vermicelli. Of course, the neighborhood has changed much, and the oyster vermicelli stand has moved too. With further investigation, the team finally learns that the food stand has developed into a restaurant. The search team tells the owner the story behind this mission and the owner is very touched and wants to offer oyster vermicelli for free.

In the end, the team brings back 20 bowls of oyster vermicelli to the ward. While everyone is enjoying this local gourmet, I ask Uncle Wang “Why do you like oyster vermicelli so much?”

“My family was poor while I was young, but as long as I could have a bowl of oyster vermicelli, I felt like I have everything.” He continues, “My family was poor and unable to provide me an education so I had to start earning money at a very young age. When I got married, I worked even harder so that my children could have a better childhood than I did and do something greater with their lives.”

“So are you happy and proud of your children now?”

“I am satisfied. Nobody is perfect, though I do wish better for them. It is good to see they’ve all graduated from college, set up their own families and are able to support themselves, unlike me back in those days…”.
“You seem to have devoted your life to make sure your children have a better future, and this is not an easy thing to do,” I interrupt.

“Really? It isn’t an easy thing to do?” He looks at me as if he wants affirmation.

“No, this is not easy at all! Because of your hard work, you have significantly improved the financial status of your family. Not only have you gotten rid of poverty, but also provided better living conditions for your children’s future,” I say.

“You really think so?” as his changed intonation indicates excitement.

“Yes, of course. You can ask others and hear how they think about this.” By the time I finished my sentence, my colleagues echo one after another: “You are such a wonderful father!”

In the days that follow, his spirit turns high because he has just discovered that he has achieved a very important and meaningful task in his life; that is, he has improved his family’s financial status and has provided his children with more opportunities—this is the meaning of his existence.

Based on the case above, there are three basic steps for spiritual care:

Step 1 is to identify the problem. Find out what is distressing the patient’s value of life. People who provide spiritual care need empathy to be in the patient’s shoes so as to unravel what might be distressing patients.

Step 2 is to admit and accept circumstances. The patient needs to recognize the cause of his distress. If the patient doesn’t recognize the cause being pointed out by the spiritual professional, the spiritual care wouldn’t be meaningful.

Step 3 is to confront and solve the problem. This process determines the final statement of his life and value. 
When all of these three steps are complete, Aspect 1 is complete.

Aspect 2: Hope

The second aspect of spiritual care is hope. The hope of patients is mostly to alleviate their symptoms, extend their lives, and complete their to-do lists. In contrast, patients who feel suicidal are often those who have lost hope. If people have no hope for the future and are constantly tormented by illness, then they often end up in despair. 

This is why people need to be able to anticipate and look forward to something valuable in their lives, because this tiny thread of hope is like the beacon inside of us showing the way forward. Spiritual needs are often the harmony of self, or with others, or with gods. Whether our souls continue to live on or reincarnate, we all wish to reside in the heavens (universally defined).

Aspect 3: Forgiving and Forgiven

Everyone has experience of being misunderstood or has done something regrettable; as a result, people need to forgive someone else or need be forgiven by someone else. In Western culture, when people know there isn’t much time left, they tend to take the initiative to write an apology letter, hoping to leave this world with no regrets and be burden free. Chinese people are more held back with their emotions and tend to be more passive, waiting for others to take the initiative and bring up the matter first; however, they often end up taking this regret with them to their graves.

In fact, if we cannot take in others, we will not be taken in as well. Taking in someone is the first step to forgiving that person. And without forgiveness, it is hard to achieve balance with the anger and guilt inside us, not to mention the balance of spiritual needs. When taking care of patients with this tendency, this is usually the easiest starting point to provide spiritual care; that is, help patients to confront and deal with their emotions, and then to take action.

Aspect 4: To Love and Be Loved

There are many kinds of love, such as the love of family, relatives, friends, colleagues or church fellows. When people feel they are being loved, they will have real love for others as well. This kind of love satisfies people’s spiritual needs a great deal. This is why care professionals need to help patients discover their love toward others in their final days, and also help them to feel the love and care from others.

Aspect 5: Relationship between the Spiritual and the Gods

Where do we go after we die? Where does our soul go? 

These questions pop up when people are in their final days; some people even started searching for these answers in their youth.

When patients ask “What is the future for me?”, the spiritual professional can answer this question from a religious background to support patients and their families. It is important to provide guidance for them to discuss and elaborate on their religions, but without pressure or stress.


Once you comprehend the Five Aspects and Three Stages, you can apply this method while you provide hospice and palliative care to any patient and understand what is troubling them through random chats. Help them raise the question, and discover the reason behind this question so as to further analyze and solve their issues. This is the mission of spiritual professional.

There are a total of 15 steps for Five Aspects and Three Stages, and each of them needs to be taken individually and gradually. Rushing to the next step will not solve the problem, but will instead bring up more confusion. When visiting patients, you can check at the same time: What is the problem? Which one can be solved now? Which step are you at now? 

When you complete this process, you can go home happily for you have found peace for another man’s spirit.