People living with serious illness: stories of spirituality

J Clin Nurs. 2012 Aug;21(15-16):2347-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2012.04196.x.


Aims and objectives: To examine stories of spirituality in people living with serious illness.

Background: Although knowledge about the experience of people with various chronic illnesses is growing, there is little known about peoples' beliefs and perspectives relating to spirituality where there is a diagnosis of a serious chronic and life-limiting illness.

Design of the study: A social constructionist approach to narrative inquiry was used.

Methods: In-depth narrative interviews were conducted on one occasion with 32 participants. This included 10 people with cancer, 14 people with end stage renal disease (ESRD) and eight people with HIV/AIDS. They ranged in age from 37-83 and included 18 men and 14 women.

Results: The themes were reflecting on spiritual religious and personal beliefs, crafting beliefs for their own lives, finding meaning and transcending beyond words. Participants melded various belief systems to fit their own lives. They also looked to find meaning in their illness experience and described what gave life meaning. For some aspects of these belief systems, participants could not or would not express themselves verbally, and it seemed that aspects of their experience were beyond language.

Conclusions: The stories revealed considerable depth relating to perspectives on life, illness and existential questions, but many participants were not comfortable with the term 'spirituality'.

Relevance to clinical practice: Nurses must remain open to learning about belief systems of each individual in their care, regardless of that individual's declared religious affiliation or declaration of no religious affiliation, given that personal beliefs and practices do not always fit into specific categories.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • HIV Seropositivity / physiopathology
  • HIV Seropositivity / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / physiopathology
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / psychology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Personal Narratives as Topic
  • Qualitative Research
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Spirituality*