Shawls That Speak Love
Prayer Shawl Program Brings Comfort to IU Health Patients and Their Families
In 2009, Nancy Murray took up crochet as a hobby and began delivering crocheted prayer shawls to local cancer centers in Florida, where she was living at the time. Murray’s daughter Genina Miller, a clinical education coordinator at IU Health West Hospital, was busy creating end-of-life education content and assembling bereavement packets.
“One day I was talking to mom on the phone and she said, ‘I’ll send you some prayer shawls to give to your patients,’” Miller says.
From then on, Murray began sending a box of shawls to Hendricks County every month, and the prayer shawl program at IU Health West was born. Six years ago, Murray moved back to Indiana to be close to family.
“She crocheted her little heart out,” says Miller, who describes her mother as a kind and loving soul – someone who never forgot a birthday, and who people sought out for advice. “She always was doing stuff to help people, whether it was taking groceries to them when they were sick, or volunteering at church.”
Since IU Health West is interfaith and nondenominational, it supports all faith traditions including those who don’t subscribe to a particular religion. As such, Miller worked to create an appropriate prayer message to attach to each shawl. Each shawl’s card reads, “May this shawl be encircling, warming and comforting. May this mantle be a safe haven, a place of security and well-being, sustaining and embracing in good times as well as difficult ones. May the one who receives this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in love.”
Each shawl is delivered in a purple bag, and chaplains and nurses read the accompanying card as they place the shawl on a patient or present it to a family member. Michael Gilbert, chaplain at IU Health West, is a primary deliverer of prayer shawls to patients.
The hospital staff began by giving shawls to patients having a particularly difficult day. Perhaps they received bad news, were feeling poorly, or experiencing pain. The staff also began giving shawls to those nearing the end of their life. Though sometimes such patients are not alert, the gesture means a great deal to friends and families.
“It’s a small but special gift of warmth and comfort – a tangible way to say we care about you,” says Miller, who admits that when the hospital started the program, she wondered if it would make a difference. “It truly does.”
Miller, who served as a critical care nurse for 15 years, initially became interested in end-of-life care because she dealt with it so frequently.
“As a critical care nurse, I believe that patients can hear even when they have progressed to a coma,” Miller says. “There were times when I took care of a patient in a coma, and they would wake up several days later and tell me that they remembered my voice. We really think that your loved ones can hear you, so when we lay these shawls on them, even if they are unconscious, we believe they can feel the love.”
Bedside nurses have shared stories with Miller about how much the prayer shawls mean to families. For example, a critical care nurse gave one to her patient, and the patient’s husband expressed his gratitude. A few days later when the patient began running a fever, the nurse removed the shawl to keep her cool. Right away the husband asked, “Where’s the prayer shawl? We need to put it back on her.”
“It’s hard to articulate how it makes people feel,” Miller says. “The best way to describe it is an act of love, kindness and caring.”
According to Miller, families sometimes keep the shawls as a memento once their loved one has passed. Others place it in the casket.
Murray worked full time as an executive secretary until she was 72 years old. After retiring, she remained active and energetic as a barista at the Warm Glow Candle Outlet off of Interstate 70, where she was beloved by coworkers and patrons. In July of 2019 she suddenly fell ill at work, and was rushed to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. She quickly went downhill and lapsed into a coma. A few days later, critical care doctors delivered the devastating news that Murray wasn’t going to make it.
“After hearing that, I walked down the hall and as I was passing the elevator, the doors opened and Michael stepped off with a purple bag,” Miller says. “The timing could not have been better.”
Gilbert placed the shawl on Murray, and it was a powerful moment of love as Murray’s prayer shawl outreach had come full circle.
“My mom had lovingly made shawls for so many people through the years and now it was her turn to get one,” Miller says.
Murray passed away two hours later.
“Getting that shawl from Michael was such a kind blessing for all of us,” says Miller, who finally understood what the gesture felt like as a shawl recipient. “It’s like getting a hug, having this shawl wrapped around you.”
Murray was the biggest contributor to the prayer shawl program at IU Health West. However, members of local churches have also donated, as have staff members from several area hospitals.
“An ER physician from Methodist drove all the way here to deliver four of the most beautiful shawls I’ve ever seen,” Miller says. “She told me she crochets to relax after work.”
Genina Miller is actively seeking volunteers who knit, crochet or sew. If you would like to donate a shawl to IU Health West Hospital, email Miller at email@example.com.