Prayer with patients if you don't believe

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    Hi there. If a patient or their family asks you to pray with them/for them, what do you say if you don't believe/have a religion/don't believe in prayer?
    Would it be considered offensive if you say no?

    Thanks
    stellina615 likes this.
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  4. 22
    I am an atheist, yet, I still have faith. Faith comes in many forms, not just that of a higher power. I have been asked to pray with patients. I have never been asked to speak aloud. Rather, I usually sit quietly and hold the patient's hand while they commune with their God. It is often a peaceful and comforting moment to patients and their families. As a nurse, you must find a way to support your patient's spirituality because, for many people, it is essential to their psychological well-being.
    If asked, I urge you to be present while your patient prays and support them. I suspect you may find it less uncomfortable than you think.
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    Since patients have spirits that need to be nurtured during their encounters with the healthcare system, I would go ahead and join in on their prayers. After all, the nurse/patient relationship is not about the nurse. It is centered on the patient.

    If prayer is nurturing to the patient's spiritual health, then so be it. Even if I do not practice their religion, I'll pray with them if it makes them feel better.
    PurpleLVN and DogWmn like this.
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    Quote from toninz
    Hi there. If a patient or their family asks you to pray with them/for them, what do you say if you don't believe/have a religion/don't believe in prayer?
    Would it be considered offensive if you say no?

    Thanks

    This is a good question as many nurses struggle with their own spirituality. The word "prayer" is so tied to organized religion that it may feel awkward to agree to participate when one doesn't subscribe to the usual organized religions. I advise a nurse who doesn't "pray" to consider how healing "prayer" proves to be.
    Also, consider for a moment whether you would feel differently if the patient had said one of the following instead:
    1. "Would you be with me for a moment and help me focus on something that is very important to me?"
    2. "Would you lend me your energy field for a moment so I can better open my heart to healing?"
    3. "Would you help me for a moment?"

    Perhaps it not a matter of whether it would be offensive but rather whether it can be viewed as a simple and effective nursing function.
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    I am not a nurse yet but I encounter this a lot. If someone asks me to pray for them (not at that moment), I say things that are reassuring and true, such as "you will be in my thoughts" and I make it clear in conversation that I do care about the outcome of the situation, want the best for them, etc.

    Being asked to participate or lead a prayer is a lot stickier.... Maybe you could say something like, "Can I sit with you while you pray?". If it is an extremely uncomfortable situation (like the 5th prayer session that hour), try something polite but firm such as "I am going to let you and your family have some privacy" and step out if you can.

    If the patient is simply scared and looking for comfort, I can't imagine they would be insistent that you do the talking. They just don't want to be alone at that moment. (and thus began religion, but I digress.... )
    stellina615 likes this.
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    Having worked with terminal cancer patients, I've been asked to do this a few times. As an agnostic, I have let them lead the prayer, and I've at times held their hands along with the hands of their loved ones/relatives (making a prayer circle), bowed my head, and said Amen at the end. I've always had either the patient, family member, or even nuns lead the prayers (I've always worked at Catholic hospitals.) If someone asked me to lead a prayer, I would first ask if either they or a family member, etc could lead them, and I would feel more comfortable just being present. If they didn't have anyone there, I would ask them what their beliefs are, and tailor my prayer to their belief system. I don't have to believe, as I'm not the focus--the patient is the focus.
    Not_A_Hat_Person and mamamerlee like this.
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    This isn't a direct answer to your question, but just a reminder that if your facility has a pastoral care department or chaplaincy department, they're a great resource for your patients' prayer and other spiritual needs. I try to offer as much emotional support to my patients as time allows with a 5 patient med-surg assignment, but as we all know, 5 minutes of our time often just isn't enough for a patient who really needs emotional support. Even the best of nurses can get preoccupied when they're trying to offer a supportive ear to a patient's emotional troubles ("I've got to get that transfusion started in room x because the blood came up 10 minutes ago!" "I hear an alarm...is my detox pt trying to climb out of bed again?" "Where the crap did I put the PCA key?" Sound familiar?) and pastoral care is there to give patients the time and healing support that we nurses wish we had time to provide but in most cases just can't. In my hospital, at least, the pastoral care department is an incredible resource and they do a great job of providing for the emotional/spiritual needs of patients, regardless of their denomination or faith or non-faith. Hope this is helpful.
    VegetasGRL03RN and mamamerlee like this.
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    I don't think it would be considered offensive if you said no, but if you consider how much it may comfort someone just to hold their hand while they pray vs whatever your personal religious beliefs may be, I wouldn't say no.

    If they ask you to lead the prayer (never had that happen yet), I would try to tactfully suggest the patient or family member do that, and very often they will, knowing the "prayer format", of their particular religion. An LDS (mormon) prayer is different from a Catholic prayer or an Evangelical or AME prayer, and those are just the Christians!!

    So I will close my eyes and just think warm or positive thoughts directed towards whatever it is they are saying, and that can't ever be bad IMO. Many times I am affected, if only for the experience of the expression of love and hope multiplied by 2 or more people. Best wishes!
    DogWmn, mamamerlee, and Meriwhen like this.
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    If your hospital has a chaplin, you could call them.
    Not_A_Hat_Person likes this.
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    Remembering the Nursing Process may also help you decide what would be right action. Assessment is always the first step and it will give you information about what is required professionally. Offering to call the Chaplain or the Rabbi may indeed be indicated, however, the patient may just need a moment of your time, right at that moment. On the other hand, an assessment may give you information that the situation calls for you to excuse yourself, in an appropriate way - "I'd love to accomodate you but I have other duties I must attend to right now. Please excuse me."

    While it is also true that you may, realistically, not have the time to sit for a long prayer session, a moment of silence is usually always possible. The moment may provide you with a much-needed opportunity to take a breath yourself.
    CommanderZ likes this.


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