Spirituality at the End of Life
Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Many of us ask ourselves these questions. They help us not only get in touch with our inner selves, but help us deal with the situations we face in our lives. At no time is the issue of addressing spiritual concerns more important than at the end of life. When illness occurs, many people turn inward and attempt to understand and deal with the crisis. They wonder, Why me? Why is this happening? For seriously ill individuals and their loved ones, the search for meaning becomes even more important. As death approaches and life slips away, many of us will strive to make sense of both.
- Conduct a Life Review This offers a great way to address spiritual concerns. Old photographs, movies, or music from particular periods transports individuals to an emotional place where they can reminisce about events and relationships throughout their lives. A life review allows them to rediscover legacies, meaning, and spiritual strengths.
Why Are Spiritual Issues Important? To take care of the whole person, caregivers, family and friends must meet their individual psychological, social, biological, and spiritual needs.
Addressing spiritual concerns at the end of life can be as vital as medication and comfort for the patient’s wellbeing. Not only does this provide an opportunity for the individual to grow and find peace, but these issues may influence the behavior and decisions of both the dying person and family members. Loved ones must also address their own spiritual issues as they deal with their pending loss.
Spirituality means different things to different people. Our own personal spiritual issues are formed from individual characteristics and beliefs that make us unique. Serious illness may cause you to rethink what really matters in life and cause you to change your focus and priorities. As death nears and the physical body becomes frail, the individual’s inner being can grow stronger as spiritual concerns are addressed. Spirituality offers an opportunity to die in peace, and provides a chance for inner growth.
What Is the Difference between Spirituality and Religion? Spirituality is the deep inner essence of who we are. Related to our soul, spirituality comes from the unique qualities of each individual. It is based on personal experiences and relationship with God, nature, or a Higher Power. It answers the question, “Why am I here?”
Religion is a set of structured guidelines of belief that are practiced within a religious institution, such as a church or synagogue. They are designed to bring people together in community worship.
What Spiritual Issues Should We Address? Because spirituality rests upon an individual’s inner being, each person addresses it differently. Yet, even though we each approach our spiritual core in a unique personal way, researchers have found universal issues of spiritual fulfillment. Everyone wants to:
- Find meaning in one’s life. Is my life worthwhile? Seriously ill people commonly ask this question as they try to determine if their life has made an impact on their loved ones and society. Through a life review, people integrate their goals and experiences in a way that leads them to this meaning.
- Die as you wish. Terminally ill people can die meaningfully; that is, in a way consistent with their identity. Because death is a personal experience, each person will define his or her appropriate death differently. As part of this process, a terminally ill person may seek to feel connected to others. This may lead to deepening existing relationships, putting affairs in order, and taking care of unfinished business.
- Have hope beyond the grave. A third spiritual need—transcendence—focuses on a person’s awareness and acknowledgement of issues that transcend, or go beyond, earthly concerns. Each person may want assurance that, in some way, our life will continue after death—What will happen to me when life ends? Some people turn to God for guidance and comfort, while others focus on the legacy they leave behind.
Dealing with Spiritual Issues
- Use relaxation techniques
- Create a legacy
- Enhance relationships
- Turn to your priest, rabbi minister, chaplain, or religious representative for guidance
© 2003, 2004, 2007 AARP. Reprinting by permission only.