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Posted: October 22, 2004

Spiritual Caregiving

The Magic of Words

(Editor's Note: There is power in the way we use our words, in the questions we ask others and ourselves. These three brief articles shed some light on how to use that power.)

How First Aid Starts with the First Thing You Say

Imagine that you witness a hit-and-run accident. You call 911 and then run to the victim, who is lying by the side of the road, hurt and semiconscious. What do you say?

  • "Don't die, please don't die."
  • "Just relax, everything's gonna' be all right."
  • "I can see you're in pain. An ambulance is on the way. The worst is over."


If you answer (A), you will simply scare the victim. Select (B) and the victim will not trust you because everything is clearly not all right. If you choose (C), you're beginning to administer Verbal First Aid, and you could help save a life.


That's according to Judith Acosta, L.C.S.W, and Judith Simon Prager, Ph.D. In their work with police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel, they have studied the power of words to promote -- or hinder -- healing in critical times.

They've developed principles of Verbal First Aid, which can come into play between a parent and a child with a cut finger, a caregiver and their pained elderly love one, a boss and an employee, or even, they say, within our own minds when we bang our heads against a cabinet and want to make the pain go away. The basics are as simple and powerful as the ABCs:


Authority: A person in a crisis is often afraid and unsure. When you speak with quiet, firm authority, you become a leader in the situation, and can say "follow me" or "do this" in a way that motivates compliance.


Believability: To say "everything's fine" to those who have been in an accident or an emergency will break rapport, because they won't believe you. It is better to say something like (C) above.


Care: Kindness and concern are the building blocks of rapport. Make your caring clear to others by your presence, your language, and your touch.


There is no substitute, no technique that can take the place of love. To learn more, read their new book, The Worst Is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts (Jodere Group, 2002).


-- The Editors


Complete Your Medical (Spiritual) History

A quick tip for your checkup:

In these days of five-minute doctor-patient meetings, here's a quick tip that may improve your visit and your health.

As your doctor finishes perusing your medical history, you might add something like this: "I'd like to tell you about some of the things that are important to me. One of them is my belief in... (God, the value of prayer, etc)."

This simple suggestion comes from Rabbi Terry Bard, a clinical psychologist at Harvard University and director of pastoral services at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. Rabbi Bard trains doctors in how to take "spiritual histories," but, chances are, he hasn't yet reached yours.

"So, tell the doctor," says Bard. "An astute physician, even one with no particular holistic bent, should now understand that a patient's spiritual resources can be an important part of treatment and recovery."

-- Linda Shirer


Physician, Assess Thyself


And let's all join them:

Before doctors can incorporate spirituality into their practices, they need to understand their own spiritual beliefs, values, and biases, counsels the journal American Family Physician.

A good way to do this, say Brown University School of Medicine's Dr. Gowri Anandaraha, and Dr. Ellen Hight, M.P.H, is to self-administer the same spiritual assessment they recommend for use with patients. It's a useful tool for all of us, and the acronym to remember it by is HOPE. Here are the elements:

H(ope): What are your sources of hope, meaning, comfort, strength, peace, love, and connection?

O(rganized religion): Do you consider yourself a part of organized religion?

P(ersonal spirituality and practices): Do you have personal spiritual beliefs that are independent of organized religion?

E(ffects on medical care and end-of-life issues): What effect has your current situation had on your spiritual practices?

Researchers are coming to believe that the taking of spiritual histories is not only helpful for planning treatment, but also beneficial in itself. "Unlike most other aspects of the medical history," says Duke University's Dr. Harold G. Koenig, "simply taking a spiritual history is often the intervention."

-- The Editors

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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