Caring for a loved one with a terminal illness can be an emotional and confusing experience. You may find yourself involved with a palliative care team, a group of caregivers who seek to treat the whole patient rather than just the illness. Palliative care differs from traditional hospice in that doctors and other team members approach patient treatment from a variety of perspectives. One of these includes spiritual care. 

Defining Spiritual Care

Many people think of church or other organized religion when it comes to spirituatlity, especially as it relates to death and dying. Many patients do rely on their faiths during these times and want to speak to a minister or other religious leader. However, spirituality can involve a great deal more than simply religion. Here are a few examples:

  • Playing and listening to music 
  • Writing letters to loved ones
  • Meditation and relaxation
  • Planting a tree, creating art or providing help to others

Three Types of Spiritual Care

There are three areas of spirituality that should be addressed with someone who is facing a terminal illness. The first is to affirm that the person's life had meaning. The second is to make sure the person's needs in death are addressed, and the third is to recognize hope for what happens after death. As a caregiver, you can help address each of these facets. 

A Meaningful Life

You can help your loved one recognize and value a meaningful life by sharing pictures, writings and memories with that person. Remind your loved one of special accomplishments, and share personal stories about ways the patient impacted your life. You can also ask questions designed to help the person recognize their life's meaning. Here are some other ways to approach this:

  • Ask the person to tell you about jobs and careers throughout their life. 
  • Find out what the person considers to be their greatest accomplishment. 
  • Ask about special talents that the person shared with others. 
  • Ask the person who influenced them the most. Then ask who they influenced as well. 

Addressing Needs in Dying

A terminally ill patient should have the opportunity to have specific needs addressed in order to be spiritually comfortable and secure. This could involve a many different needs, so it is important to ask for specifics. You can help your loved one by being open to conversations that may be awkward, difficult or painful and by encouraging others to be involved as well. The person may wish to 

  • Speak to the family about wishes regarding money, property and possessions. 
  • Reassurance that pets will have a permanent home. 
  • Look over wills and other documents related to dying. 
  • Plan a funeral or memorial service. 
  • Visit a former home, a church or other meaningful place. 
  • Relay specific wishes about who will be present at the time of death and what will be happening during that time such as prayer, silence or even singing. 

Looking at the Future

People have many different ideas and beliefs about what happens after death. You can help your loved one spiritually by encouraging conversation about what will happen after the person dies. 

Your loved one may believe that the spirit will go to heaven after the body dies or may believe that the soul can return to the world in a different body. It is important that the people caring for the patient accept and respect the person's view of what happens after death and allow the person to express feelings about it. Encourage the patient to talk about these topics, and insist that others respect the patient's views. 

Palliative care can be an excellent way of providing comfort and security to someone who is facing a terminal illness. As a caregiver, you can help by providing spiritual care that will allow your loved one to find peace. For more information, visit resources like