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Faith and the End of Life

April 23, 2015

By Barbara Karnes, RN

The definition of the word faith from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary is:

  • fidelity to one’s promises; sincerity of intentions;
  • belief and trust in and loyalty to God;
  • belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion firm belief in something for which there is no proof;
  • complete trust.

Approaching the End of Life

Approaching the end of our life generally promotes questions and searching about purpose, meaning and the direction our life has taken. Any of the above definitions for faith apply to our end of life search. These thoughts may not be shared with anyone but I believe we ask ourselves questions like: What have I done? Whom have I touched? What has this life been about? What is my belief about an afterlife? And, if a belief in God has been a part of our life, have I lived up to the expectations I believe are a part of a relationship with God?

Because our relationship with God, or absence of a relationship with God, is very personal it is not up to outsiders to try to influence that relationship unless asked. The operative words here are “unless asked.” Facing the end of life is not the time for conversions or saving, again, unless asked.

Because on many levels we are asking meaningful questions about the course our life has taken, major spiritual work takes place. The person approaching death does this work as the dying process progresses and withdrawal from this world reaches a place of introspection. It appears people are merely sleeping when really they are doing perhaps the most important work of their lives—figuring out what their life has been about.

A Personal Search

The approach of the end of our life is a personal search and not a place for others to share their beliefs unless, of course, we are asked.

With people of the same religion, same beliefs, such as with members of a church, synagogue, mosque, shrine, or temple, in the months before death spiritual conversations are helpful if they are initiated by the person facing death. Some people welcome conversations, others prefer to find answers from within.

We must always respect a person’s choices. Remember, we approach this final challenge in our life in the same manner we have approached all of our challenges. If a belief in God or a specific religion was not a part of living our life our beliefs will probably not change now. I will add that sometimes we will return to the religion and belief we had when we were younger but this doesn’t seem to happen enough to really count on it.

There are many paths to self discovery. Religion is but one path. I walk a broader path in the hopes that each of us, regardless of our beliefs, may experience compassionate end of life care.

About the Author

Barbara is an award-winning end-of-life educator and nurse who has been instrumental in creating the patient/family educational booklet for hospice. A former hospice nurse, director, and consultant, Barbara is the author of the booklets A Time to Live: Living with a Life Threatening Illness; Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience; The Eleventh Hour: A Caring Guideline for the Hours to Minutes before Death; My Friend I Care: The Grief Experience; the book The Final Act of Living: Reflections of a Long Time Hospice Nurse and a family-oriented DVD/booklet kit New Rules For End of Life Care. She blogs at Something to Think About where a version of this post originally appeared.

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Afterword: Physician-Assisted Dying Concepts

Aid-in-Dying Movement Draws Distinction from “Physician-Assisted Suicide”

While “physician-assisted suicide” was once common terminology for the act of a mentally competent, terminally ill patient seeking medications to end life at a time of the patient’s choosing, the Death with Dignity movement now rejects this characterization. Imposing  the emotionally fraught idea of suicide onto patients, who are not seeking death yet are facing it as a result of their disease, is now considered inappropriate and, to some, offensive. Instead of ending a life that could otherwise continue, seeking and taking medication under Death with Dignity laws hastens the end of a life that is already ending. For this reason we avoid the use of the term.