Spirituality and serious illness

A serious illness often causes everyone in the family to look inward.

The person who is ill, and their family members, may find themselves reflecting on the larger, spiritual issues concerning life’s purpose.

Sometimes there is anger at God. “Why me?” or “How could He allow such suffering?”

Sometimes there is a return to a childhood faith, even by people who were not religious as adults.

The search for meaning

A sense of purpose can sustain us through even the darkest hours. Noted psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent many years in Nazi concentration camps. He observed that a sense of meaning and a goal for the future were crucial to resilience. Those who identified a purpose for their life survived with grace and dignity. Those who didn’t succumbed to bitterness and despair.

Finding purpose in serious illness
These lessons apply to a serious illness. While we cannot control the disease, we do have some control over our responses. The way we approach the illness can have a profound effect on the quality of our life. The experience of our days. This is true for the person you care for. It is also true for you as a family caregiver.

Finding purpose can add great meaning and depth to a difficult situation. Indeed, many people diagnosed with terminal conditions have remarked that the illness also brought them gifts. Families often express a similar reaction.

A life review
Reflecting on one’s life can be a good place to start a search for meaning. Many people focus on their achievements. They tend to recount their material or social accomplishments.

The legacy of the soul
Few of us can be a great statesman or a brilliant artist. All of us, however, have created a very meaningful legacy for our friends and families. The way we have lived our lives has allowed us to touch the hearts and souls of others. The memories shared, the lessons and values we have passed on are true treasures.

An ethical will
Rather than write a memoir, some people choose to create an ethical will. They tell stories about their life from the point of view of the lessons learned. The milestones are less about achievement and more about wisdom gained. They pick no more than 10 concepts they would like to “bequest.” Then they tell the tale of how they came to this understanding of the world. An ethical will can be dictated into a recording device and transcribed later. Or, your loved one can be videoed while sharing their ethical will in conversation.

Religious interpretations
The world’s religions recognize this need for life review. The Christian faith describes St. Peter reviewing the life of the recently deceased at the gates of heaven. In ancient Egypt, the god Osiris was said to weigh a dying person’s heart against the Feather of Truth.

What to do in the time that remains?
The process of reflection can also help your loved one prioritize his or her thoughts about what to do next. It may become clear, for instance, that it’s time to resolve an old conflict. Perhaps with a friend or an estranged relative. Many people discover that they want to write letters or make phone calls to reconcile family relationships.

The role of hope
Hope and a goal for the future are the building blocks to finding meaning or purpose. Even with a terminal diagnosis, people need to feel hope. They need to have things to look forward to. A serious illness presents many opportunities for inner growth and change, even if one is bedridden. To learn more about finding daily meaning and future purpose, please see our article about hope. You might also be interested in our article about quality of life.

What might you do to help your loved one conduct a life review? Create an ethical will?
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Troubling questions

Whether death is in fact weeks or decades away, we inevitably come up with questions about life’s mysteries.

  • Is there meaning to life?
  • What is the point if we are ultimately going to die?
  • Do we simply vanish when we die, or is there an afterlife?
  • Is there a Being, Existence, or Force that is larger than ourselves?
  • Why have we been given the conditions we’ve been given? Why are we suffering?

Where does the human meet the divine?
Most of us do not wake up each morning pondering such deep philosophical issues! But when we are faced with a serious illness, these concerns become very important. The prospect of death causes us to look at where the human meets the divine. We question our understanding of the spiritual side of life.

Life is short!
Many people—the seriously ill as well as family members—use this opportunity to reexamine their priorities. The saying, “life is short” takes on new urgency. Exposure to a serious illness can spark changes. It may be time to realign one’s life to fit with one’s deepest priorities. This way, the time that remains is meaningful, whether it is years, weeks, or days.

Living your priorities
For some people, this realignment means resolving relationships. It could involve forgiveness. It could result in a shift to concentrate on love or on gratitude. For others, it means adopting a spiritual practice. They find ways to focus on the sacred, even in the midst of chaos.

A life-threatening condition is disruptive. This is true for the person who is sick. Also for the family. It challenges everyone physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Our self-image is called into question. We are forced to reexamine our sense of order in the world.

Want to talk? If you would like to talk with someone about your spiritual concerns, feel free to call us at 828-692-6178, or toll-free at 866-466-9734. There is no charge. We have chaplains who deal with these issues every day. They do not try to convert you to their faith. They simply ask questions and help you find your own answers.
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Purpose of suffering

All the major religions address the issue of suffering. It is common for people with serious illness to get mad about the situation and ask, “Why me?” Expressing that anger can be very healing. It can open the heart to deeper realizations.

Odd as it may sound, most people eventually come to understand that bad things happen, even to good people. It’s not a punishment. It’s just the way of things. Part of our journey. They learn to give up needing to control their life. The outcome becomes less important than the dignity and grace they use to handle each day. They find spiritual solace by looking for the gifts in their condition.

Some people recognize their illness as an opportunity to reflect on their life. They make amends while they are still able. Some determine that their disease is God’s will. They use the opportunity to surrender to a Higher Power. Others embrace a transcendent view. They find themselves opening to a spacious understanding of their soul’s deathless nature.

What is your sense of your loved one’s approach to this topic?
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Ritual as a source of strength


Whatever your spiritual path, ritual may help you come to terms with these difficult circumstances. Ritual helps us mark events or realizations in our lives. It lifts us above the humdrum of daily existence. It brings out the sacred within us. With their familiar patterns, spiritual observations and ceremonies can offer comfort and ease our distress. They can be a source of inner strength.

Daily rituals
Prayer, meditation, lighting candles, holding hands before a meal. Daily rituals raise us quickly to an understanding of our spiritual nature. They remind us that we are more than what we appear to be.

Rituals of passage
Rituals that mark specific life passages help us remember that many have gone through this journey before. Others will do so after us. Ritual can provide a thread of continuity. It ties us to the past and future. It can also help connect us with our community.

If your spiritual practice offers rituals, you might wish to bring them more to the fore in your life. The roles and activities prescribed by tradition can offer a safe place to express feelings. They provide a vessel to explore the meaning of what is happening to you and those you love.

What about your loved one? Is there a faith tradition from his or her youth? Perhaps there is a ritual of passage that would ease this journey. Would it be helpful to talk to a member of the clergy?

Creating your own ritual
If you or your family do not have specific practices, you can create them. Rituals tend to include one or more of the following elements:

  • an opening and a closing. These mark a line between “ritual time” and the routines of daily life
  • repetition of special words or songs
  • special garments, hats, or ornaments
  • objects set aside for ritual purpose only
  • a location that has particular meaning or symbolism
  • the gathering of others to offer support

Rituals can be private, as in the practice of reading a poem before bed. They can be done in small groups and have meaning only to those involved.

For instance, one young family with a dying father made a candelabra together out of clay. Each person fashioned a small sculpture to put on the piece. Now, with the father having passed away, they have the memory of making the candelabra together. They also use it during holidays and other occasions when they wish to include him in their activities.

Planning rituals is healing
Many people find it comforting to plan social rituals together. Your family may find peace and closure by planning the memorial with your loved one. Other families decide to have a celebration of life while the person who is ill is still alive. This brings the added joy of hearing the love and appreciation of those whose lives they have touched.

Whatever your beliefs, a serious illness will call upon you to ask deep questions. It is an opportunity to clarify your values. It lets you bring to light who you are. And for the dying, it highlights the qualities that transcend physical form.

What ritual would be healing or helpful for you? Your loved one?
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