Drawing Toward God at Children's Hospital
Coping with chronic illness requires spiritual resources that children cannot easily talk about. Now a hospital chaplain has developed two simple, enjoyable techniques to help them express their fears and tap into their deepest strengths.
This article appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health.
Years of being with chronically ill children and adolescents at Children’s Hospital in Detroit has given me insight into their understanding of God’s presence, strength, comfort, and healing power in their lives. I can now say from long experience that children — all children — are very spiritual beings. But to understand that, I first had to learn to read their silences, to interpret their shrugs and even their blank stares. Most children don’t have the ability or vocabulary to express their spirituality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there or it’s not important. Quite the contrary. The key for adults is to find ways to draw that spirituality out — and to recognize it when it comes. At Children’s Hospital we have developed two simple techniques that can help.
The first technique is for the child to create a book called God & Me at Children’s Hospital, a book that allows patients to tell their story of how God works (or doesn’t work) in and through frequent, lengthy hospitalizations. Each page of the book has a theme, and the ways the children fill out those themes serve as catalysts for discussion, guiding patient and chaplain (or parent) on their spiritual journey. The process requires the adult to understand verbal and non-verbal cues without editing or assuming, and to be aware of his or her own personal feelings and experiences as the child tells the story.
The second technique for exploring a sick child’s spiritual thoughts and feelings is to use two simple acrostics — word games in which the letters of one word are used to come up with other words that describe it (for example, car = clunker, antique, racing). The first acrostic uses the letters of the patient’s name to begin words that describe qualities that God has given her. The second acrostic uses the letters of her disease for words that describe how she feels about having that particular disease. These two acrostics will not only help the listener understand how the patient perceives herself, they will often surprise the patient.
Both of these techniques are non threatening because they direct attention away from the patient and use materials familiar to the patient. They allow the child to lead, giving him or her a sense of control. They are also a great assessment tool as the listener travels into a pediatric patient’s world, a world filled with fears of surgery, being alone, and dying as well as hope, love, and healing. An attentive listener will discover the patient’s view of self as well as how she is seen through God’s eyes, how active he believes God is in the treatment and healing process, and how comfortable she is in talking to God about being angry, sad, or afraid. The willing listener is frequently led to surprising, profound, and sacred places.