Faith and Dying Well

I recently came across an article on a Christian site discussing why it is that Christians seem to have so much difficulty with end of life choices such as hospice care (unfortunately I can’t link to the article right now as I can’t find it again).

As a hospice chaplain for seven years I can say the following:

  1. most of my patients and families have some kind of faith background, and I would guess that it is about 90% Christian
  2. about half of my Christian patients are Roman Catholic
  3. of those that can tell me, most of my patients are not afraid of dying and neither are their families.

That said, I would say that obviously not all Christians die poorly, and a good number are quite accepting of God’s plan and, even when there is a very real fear of the dying process, that fear is tempered by the hope of Heaven.

However this is only a sample of those who have already chosen hospice. It would stand to reason that patients and families that are in some way afraid of dying or the dying process don’t consider hospice at all. One would think that this group is mostly atheist/agnostic and so on, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve had atheists on service before, and they look at death as a release from their pain and struggle and accept it as part of life. On the flip side of the coin, there are many Christians who struggle with decisions at the end of life and hang on even when recovery is impossible. The “why”s in these cases are plentiful I’m sure, but faith itself itself can be one.

I remember one gentleman and his wife very vividly. They had both been involved in a healing ministry several years ago, but since that time she had suffered a stroke and was now on hospice.  She had been nonverbal for several years following her stroke and required total care, but she could hear and communicate through her smile and her eyes. Her husband was very devoted to her and spent every day with her at her bedside from 7am to 7pm like clockwork. He was sure that she would recover miraculously because the leader of the ministry had told his wife that she was going to have her own healing ministry. As this hadn’t happened yet, he was relying on this prophetic promise as a sure sign of her recovery. Yet at the same time he had her on hospice, and knew what we were there for. He thought Mother’s Day would be the day of her recovery, and when that passed he thought it would be Easter Sunday. That passed as well with no improvement. Even on her deathbed he clung to that hope, and after she died he seemed to have lost all purpose and hope in his life. We soon lost track of him and I don’t know what has happened since the last time I saw him after his wife’s death.

This man was caught in a battle I’ve heard played out in other circumstances. Some ministers and teachers proclaim that faith in God must be unwaivering and without doubt. The petition to God made in that absolute faith will be granted. If it is not granted, it is not due to God but due to your own lack of faith. When someone’s life is on the line, it can feel to someone that holds this belief that the other’s life is in their hands, not God’s.

I think this story to me points out the paradox of the miraculous Christians face: miracles by their very definition do not happen often or naturally and so therefore it’s hard to trust that they will happen, but to believe that they don’t happen at all seems to deny the power of God in the world. Many faithful believers have had to navigate the emotional and spiritual tension of asking God for – and expecting – a miracle and accepting God’s will as above our own. Jesus’ own petition to God in Luke 22:42, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me–nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done”, can be seen as evidence of this tension and anguish.

These aren’t easy waters to navigate. The chaplain often is forced to wrestle with his or her own disappointments and unanswered prayers at this time as well, and that is the starting point for good counseling in these situations. Sharing the journey is perhaps the best therapy.

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