Joanne Olson, September 26, 2021
Did you know that the gospels have 72 accounts of healing – about one fifth of the total content? Jesus’ life of caring for human health is the basis for the church’s focus on health and healing over the centuries (Tutton). The early Christian church was involved in health and healing in its emerging first century communities. Later, in monasteries and convents, medicines were developed, and the healing arts were practiced, recorded, and passed on. Over the past 1000 years, many faith groups established centres of healing such as charity hospitals in the Middle Ages, and more recently, large full-service hospitals such as the Grey Nuns here in Edmonton. However, over time, a gap developed whereby congregations became distanced from their historic healing missions. As a consequence, parish nursing was born some thirty years ago.
In the early 1990’s, there weren’t any parish nurses in Canada. Rev. Granger Westberg, had founded parish nursing in the US. Interested people in Canada had similar ideas. Soon there were courses preparing registered nurses to serve in Canadian faith communities. Margaret Clark, who was the chief chaplain at the University of Alberta Hospitals, and I were involved in developing the first university-based parish nursing course in Canada. We prepared 100 RNs for parish nursing roles over a 10-year period. We also developed a one-year practicum where parish nursing students were placed in congregations at no cost so that the students could learn the role and congregations could experience a parish nurse on the ministry team. We wrote articles and the first book about parish nursing in Canada. And on top of this, Margaret and I would take to the roads, even during snowy, dark Alberta nights to meet with church boards who requested more information about parish nursing for their congregations.
One such church was Riverbend United Church. Early parish nurses here included Kathleen Gilchrist, Lynn Anderson, and Dr. Lillian Douglass. In 2005, Lil Douglass resigned her position, leaving RUC without a parish nurse. Soon after, I woke up one day with a clear sense of call tugging at me. Something or someone was telling me that I had the education, the life and nursing experience, had been preparing others for parish nursing, and that I knew this congregation well – we had already been members for 14 years. By September 2005, I was in the role of parish nurse in this congregation.
Over the past 15 years, I have been involved with almost every family in this congregation and with many on a long-term basis. There were joyful events such as births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and anniversaries. There were weekend community workshops focusing on issues of loss and grief. I visited new parents and their newborn babies. I worked with youth who were asking questions and some who were struggling with health issues. Others were feeling the effects of what was going on with their parents. I visited homes, long-term care facilities and hospitals as members of our congregation experienced minor and major life changes due to health-related issues. For the seniors of this faith community, there were so many transitions: changes in housing; health related issues; care-giving issues; losses of all kinds including partners, friends, deaths of children and grandchildren and even losses of drivers’ licenses!
I attended funerals and did follow-up visits long after the immediate busyness of the death and the memorial service had passed. There were losses that were expected and marked the end of a well lived life. And there were deaths that came way too soon in the lives of young people.
I was involved in many situations where there were mental health issues at the root of the challenges experienced. One of these congregants knew me well enough that I was the person phoned when they had taken an overdose. A quick home visit and a call to 911 followed. An ambulance was summoned and the person and I spent several hours in the emergency room until a family member could be located.
The experiences were diverse. There was work with people going through the ending of a relationship and needing support as they built new lives. One such opportunity involved being invited to be on a self-created discernment committee. There were educational and support groups: spirituality of grandparenting, a memory boosters group, life review groups, CPR and first aid training. There were opportunities to discuss end of life issues including memorial/funeral planning, wills and advanced directives.
I often became involved with people and families because they sought me out. At other times, the minister, church administrator or congregation members made me aware of those in need. And at times, my nursing and life experience just seemed to help me sense where I could be of support. Sometimes the situations came from within the congregation and at other times they came from beyond.
Here are some examples of emails, phone calls, and mail that came to me:
I am an adult interested in getting baptized. I live in the Riverbend community but have not yet been to the church. I have a husband and a 6-year-old son who have been to one of the services recently. I don’t get out too much as I have Stage 4 cancer. I’m not sure of my life expectancy but would like to get baptized while feeling fairly well, i.e. in the next 4 weeks would be good.
And this email came from a community agency:
I heard you were a parish nurse at Riverbend United. I have a client who will have day surgery at the Royal Alex on Thursday. She needs a ride and some help. Would you be able to supply any names of someone who could help her? Her husband lives in Bangladesh.
Here is a thank you card I received:
Thank you for your ongoing care, compassion and support to our family. Your hospital visits were appreciated and provided comfort during a sad and stressful time for all of us as Dad was in his final days.
Another email from the mother of a university student read:
I need your expert advice. I have a very stressed-out daughter who needs to learn how to handle her “inner” voice. She drives herself to perform at higher and higher levels. As a result, she is tired and worn out. I think it would be an ideal time in her life to learn better coping strategies.
On most Sundays, I participated in worship services.
This note was left on my desk one Sunday morning before the worship service:
Our new grandson was born recently. He was diagnosed with a hole in his heart. He was admitted to the pediatric cardiology ward at the Stollery. His parents and their 3-year-old daughter need our support right now, so we won’t be in church today. Please ask the congregation to pray for us and his family. Your knowledge about these things and your ongoing support would also be welcome in the days and weeks ahead.
There were many times when my advanced nursing knowledge was extremely helpful. One such occasion was when a member of this congregation died when he was in a second marriage. I knew his current wife well, but I also knew his first wife. While the minister was working with the family on funeral plans, I remembered a concept from my nursing education that I had graduate students doing research on. It is known as “disenfranchised grief” – this is the deep pain and grief that one feels when there is an invisible loss, a loss that isn’t being publicly acknowledged. There aren’t open rituals that allow the person to grieve. With that knowledge, I visited the ex-wife.
Here is the note I later received in a beautiful card:
It’s been exactly one year since you visited me, following the sudden death of my ex-husband. I have felt so blessed by that visit. Your understanding of the depth of my sorrow has comforted me over and over again this past year as I’ve silently grieved for him, who filled such a large and important part of my life at one time. Knowing that I am not entirely crazy to feel such deep loss has made it much easier for me to accept and live comfortably with the sadness and move on with an appreciation for the good memories. Thank you so much, first of all, for thinking of me, and then for acting on your thoughts with wisdom and compassion. May you continue to bless others as you have blessed me.
I didn’t do any of this work alone. I was always part of a strong ministry team and had congregational members working with me in various ways. I was supported by four ministers: Rev. Bill Cantelon, Rev. Tom Sawyer (at two different times), Rev. Don Koots, and Rev. Valerie Oden. There were two main youth ministers with whom I worked closely: Karen Bridges and Chris Giffen. And there was the Pastoral Care Committee in early years and the Care Team in recent years.
My commissioning service as parish nurse, led by Rev. Bill Cantelon, was a symbol of me being called to carry out the healing mission of this congregation, to allow God to work through me on behalf of all of you. The symbols that I was part of a large caring community ranged from the simple things like soups, casseroles and turkey dinner leftovers in the church freezer to prayer shawls and blankets created to wrap around and comfort people in times of need.
When COVID came along, it became too challenging to safely keep up a parish nursing ministry as I was used to doing with close contact with people in homes, hospitals, long-term care facilities and here at the church. The worship services could go virtual but not parish nursing, in my view. For the safety of others and those vulnerable in my own family, I resigned the position on May 1, 2020.
As I close, I want you to know that it is I who has been richly blessed by sharing life experiences with the resilient and faithful people of this congregation. By walking beside so many of you in times of joy as well as challenge, I have learned how to live a faith-filled life of hope no matter what the circumstances that surround us. You have taught me as Kaaren Nowicki says that even with all of its challenging realities, our lives “can be places where hope runs rampant. Hope can comfort, inspire, and promote healing. It can bring energy to impossible situations and peace to the pain of transition and loss. Hope can exert its force in surprising and unexpected ways. Hope can be obvious and unavoidable, and it can be elusive and mysterious. Sometimes we have to find a quiet moment and wait for hope to perch on our souls. Often it lands so lightly that we don’t even know it’s there until we begin to hear the whisper of its tune” (Nowicki, p. 87).
Thank you for teaching me to always have hope. Let us pray in the words of Kaaren Nowicki (p. 88):
We hear discord.
We witness transition.
We see pain.
We encounter and feel loss.
You provide courage.
You inspire hope.
You help us carry the load.
You hear our fears.
You offer words of healing.
You fill our emptiness with your presence.
You are with us on the path to peace.
Accept our hopes and prayers, our thanks and praise. AMEN
Nowicki, K. A. (2006). Spiritual triage: Timely meditations for health-care workers.
Tutton, M. (2018). Stories parish nurses tell about their role in wholistic healing through their
work with parishioners. (Master of Divinity Research Project. Atlantic School of Theology). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. The Pilgrim Press.