UNC Health Care
Patient with IV drip and hand tag in a hospital

A Healing Presence in the Hospital

Hospitals are places where people go to be physically healed. But often, emotional and spiritual care is needed, too.

That’s where hospital chaplains come in: They offer a compassionate presence in times of crisis and grief. Their support and guidance can be a

valuable resource for patients and families navigating challenging situations.

UNC Medical Center Pastoral Care Department Director Shay Greene, MDiv, BCC, explains how her team of chaplains offers help and healing during some of the most difficult times in people’s lives.

What Hospital Chaplains Do for Patients

Chaplaincy encompasses a full range of spiritual services to help people dealing with serious, and sometimes sudden, health challenges. This includes help facing end-of-life decisions. Chaplains also can provide religious rituals or sacraments upon a patient’s or family member’s request.

“We’re seen as part of the healthcare team. We help individuals utilize their faith and their spirituality navigating the reality of a serious diagnosis,” Greene says. “We do a lot of grief support at times of death and anticipatory grief work when there is an impending death.”

But chaplains work during happy times, too, she adds. “We celebrate the last chemo treatments, receiving the long-awaited transplant, the birth of the much-anticipated baby and the healing that enables patients to return home.”

The Department of Pastoral Care is integrated into day-to-day care of patients at UNC Medical Center, UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Campus and UNC Hospitals at WakeBrook.

The program includes Greene, six clinical chaplains, four chaplains who are certified educators teaching in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program, six residents and more than a dozen interns—all of whom do chaplaincy work. Clinical chaplains are assigned to specific areas, such as women’s services, children’s services, oncology, behavioral health, palliative care, bereavement and the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center; chaplains work in departments throughout the hospital.

Reasons to See a Hospital Chaplain

Being inside a hospital can lead to a host of emotions, and that’s when chaplains can assist. Here are some reasons someone might ask for their spiritual guidance:

  • Interest in spiritual rituals or sacraments, such as communion, blessings or baptism
  • Need for someone to come pray for extra strength
  • Help processing grief or addressing spiritual distress

(feeling abandoned by God, hopelessness)

  • Guidance on ethical decision-making
  • Help finding meaning or acceptance in the face of illness (why is this happening to me?)
  • End-of-life planning
  • Spiritual resources (information on meditation, support groups)

Chaplains are available by request, so if you or a loved one is in the hospital and could use some support, don’t hesitate to ask, Greene says.

“We have many people who say the chaplain is instrumental in helping them get through a difficult time,” she says. “Be open to the possibility. Be open to different understandings of what a chaplain is able to provide as far as spiritual care.”

Chaplains Are Not Just for Religious People

Whether or not you come from a spiritual background, chaplains are available to help you ponder questions about your circumstances, fear of the unknown, loneliness and hopelessness.

“If you don’t believe in any higher power, your spirit is still affected. We help people approach what a certain situation means to them and how to best process it. Even though they may not have a faith language to utilize, we help bring language to their feeling and what they are experiencing,” Greene says.

In respect of all faiths and also nonbelievers, chaplains do not impose their beliefs. Instead, they focus on helping you process your feelings and potentially find peace or hope.

If a you identify with a religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and others, a chaplain can help meet the need for comfort, hope and strength through that faith tradition. They also can connect community clergy to a patient or family member if requested. Sometimes this is done if the patient or caregivers have concerns about a treatment and the teachings of a particular religion.

“We can work with clergy from that specific faith group to help bring an understanding to the situation and guide a treatment plan that would honor that person’s belief system,” Greene says. “We would be there to help have those conversations to help find a common place that would hopefully bring healing.”

Telechaplaincy During COVID-19

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the way chaplains approach the sick, but their work continues. Telechaplaincy is now available for all COVID-positive patients and their family members. All conversations and video chats are done through FaceTime or Webex.

For now, chaplains are allowed to visit any other patient face-to-face in the hospital, even those who require personal protective equipment but are not positive for COVID-19.

“We are considered essential workers. Spiritual needs and spiritual distress definitely increased once the pandemic started. With patients and family members, we’ve had to address loneliness, disconnect and complicated grief due to not being able to have the appropriate funeral,” Greene says.

Of course, challenging times are hard on doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, too.

“When a patient dies, we can help staff members process how to cope with their everyday duties following that. We’re doing a lot to work with resiliency with staff, especially during COVID-19 when they are carrying their own sense of fear about the pandemic,” Greene says.

The chaplains work on building staff resilience by leading programs and educational events and helping staff identify coping tools. “We encourage individuals to pay attention not only to their physical bodies but to their mind and spirit, too,” she says.


Need a chaplain? Talk to your care team about how to request a visit from a chaplain.