Death and serious illness have a way of leading people back to some fundamental questions: Why am I here? What’s the purpose of it all? Amidst suffering and death, we may look to our lives or to the lives of our loved ones for meaning. The problem with such pursuits is that we are focused back on ourselves. There is no lasting meaning found there. Any “good” deeds remembered can bring with them as many or more “bad” deeds to cancel them out. The works of our own hands are not sufficient for comfort.
As St. Paul says, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God…” (2 Corinthians 3:5, English Standard Version)This sufficiency comes not from a God who is far off, a God who we must work to find, no, the Christian God came to dwell among us.
In Jesus Christ, God gives meaning to our life as Jesus lived it – womb to tomb – while experiencing everything we experience. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV) Jesus bore our diseases (Matthew 8:17), He faced death head-on and is victorious (Romans 6:9), and through our Lord Jesus we, too, share in His victory (1 Corinthians 15:57)!
We don’t always know why things happen. Sometimes life gives us questions for which there are no answers. Faith drives us back to God. The Lord told St. Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore,” Paul continues, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Looking to our own lives for answers can many times raise even more questions. Looking to God’s Word for answers points us back to Jesus – to His cross and Resurrection – every time. As redeemed children of God, He gives to us new meaning and new life – even in the midst of weakness and suffering. Illness and death loom over us, but the Resurrection of Christ awaits us.
Jesus suffered many pains and burdens, but He was raised to new life. In Him we share in suffering, but also in eternal life with Him and our loved ones. Through God’s Word, in Jesus, we find all the meaning we need: meaning during life, meaning in the face of disease and death, and meaning for the life to come.
As we face our mortality, 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? Will we be judged for how we have lived? Why have we been given the conditions we’ve been given? If we are in pain, why are we suffering? If we know we are dying, what reason is there for hope?
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. Whether we observe the traditions of an organized religion or not, considering the prospect of death causes us to look at where the Human meets the Divine and question our understanding of the spiritual side of life. Many people use this opportunity to reexamine their priorities and determine whether, or how, they can make changes so that the time they have left is meaningful, be it years or days.
For some people, this reassessment means resolving relationships, working on forgiveness, and concentrating on the love shared with the people they care about. For others, it means adopting a spiritual practice and finding ways to focus on the sacred, even in the midst of chaos.
Whether you are a caregiver or a patient, coping with a life-threatening condition is disruptive not only to the physical side of life, but also to our relationships, our self image, and our understanding of justice and fairness in the world. Spirituality is a way to bring order to that chaos and meaning to suffering.
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Spirituality and suffering
A serious illness often causes us to look inward. Patients and family members frequently find themselves reflecting on the larger, spiritual issues concerning life’s purpose.
No one likes to suffer. People look down on any sort of suffering. We want our lives to be easy, so we fear suffering; especially suffering that will only be ended by death. In some sense, we would prefer a sudden death where there was no suffering.
However, a sudden, “pain-free” death has not always been the common preference. In the Middle Ages, such a death would have been considered evil. Thus the Christian church sometimes prays, even today, that we would not be victim to a “sudden and evil death.” This begs the question, “Then what good is suffering? Why does it have to happen to me?” Don’t we play in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil?” Why, then, do we still find ourselves suffering?
Our heavenly Father desires His children –all of the Christian church – to be conformed to the image of His Son. (Romans 8:29) Jesus lived a life of suffering for the salvation of the entire world. In our suffering, we become like Him, not that we save the world by our suffering, but that just as Christ was victorious in His sufferings we shall be victorious through Him as well. Moreover, the Lord exalts those of low degree. Suffering humbles us, proving to our stubborn selves that we are not independently strong and self-sufficient.
Suffering puts us in a position to be saved by God. Sufferings takes us from a high position to a low one, but only so that we may ultimately be raised up by God to be with Him in the heavenly places. Jesus teaches “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11, ESV) And again, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 19:30, ESV)
Suffering through pain and disease is certainly a cross to bear, and we are faced with the threat of death by that cross. Yet we have a Savior who first suffered and died on a cross and rose again to new life and glory. His ending is ours. We too, through Him, shall be victorious over our cross and suffering.
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The "gift" of a terminal illness
It is easy to see the positive aspects of life as gifts from God, but when bad things enter the picture, we may feel tempted to believe God has abandoned us. St. James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17, ESV) When the gift doesn’t seem “good,” we despair. A terminal illness as a gift from God? We can pray with Job, in faith, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10, ESV)
Many people find that spending time with someone who is dying actually teaches them quite a bit about living. For instance, we don’t have to wait for a terminal diagnosis to resolve conflicted relationships. Anytime is a good time to wipe the slate clean and start anew with people who have been important to you. Whether you have a terminal condition and are actively dying or seem to be healthy with decades yet to live, the truth is that we will all die someday. Our time here is limited. One gift of a terminal illness is that it encourages both the patient and family members to live their remaining days as they wish they had lived all along. Keeping relationships open, clear, and loving on a daily basis is one way to limit your regrets when your own time comes.
This is not to say that we are ever exceedingly happy with a terminal diagnosis. It doesn’t suddenly become easy. What this tells us is that God sends all things for our good, all things as gift. We pray that terminal illness causes the patient, family, and friends to look toward God for comfort rather than turn away from Him. In this way, the Lord uses what the world sees as a curse to strengthen His people in faith and fellowship.
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Ritual as a source of strength
Whatever your religion, ritual may help you come to terms with what is undeniably a stressful situation. Ritual helps us mark events or realizations in our lives. It lifts us above the humdrum of daily existence and calls out the sacred within us. With their familiar patterns, religious observations and ceremonies can offer comfort and ease our distress. They can be a source of inner strength.
Daily rituals—prayer, meditation, the lighting of candles, the holding of hands before a meal—raise us quickly to a reminder of our spiritual nature, that we are more than what we appear. Rituals that mark specific life passages help us remember that many have gone through this journey before and others will do so after us. Ritual can provide a thread of continuity in this way, tying 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 and explore the meaning of what is happening to you and those you love. If you do not have specific practices, you can certainly create them. Rituals tend to include one or more of the following elements:
- an opening and a closing to mark a distinction between “ritual time” and the routines of daily life
- repetition of special words or songs
- designated garments, hats, or ornaments
- objects specifically set aside for ritual purpose
- 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 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 not only have the memory of making the candelabra together, but they can use it during holidays and other occasions when they wish to spiritually include him in their activities.
Many people find it comforting to plan social rituals together. Some patients find peace and closure by participating in the planning of their funeral. Other families decide to have a celebration of life while the person who is ill has a chance to be present and hear the 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 and bring to light who you are and what it is about you that will survive your physical form. Each person’s answers will be unique. The gift of a terminal illness is the opportunity to address these questions while you still have time to act on your responses.
Patients of Concordia Hospice of Washington are provided with as many opportunities as possible to participate in their church or religion’s end of life rituals. Each patient’s own pastor or religious leader is encouraged to participate during this time. Should a patient currently be without a pastoral care giver, Concordia Hospice of Washington’s chaplains are available for prayer, hymn singing, communion, Scripture reading, anointing, etc. At Concordia Hospice of Washington, we believe each patient’s faith and struggles are important, and should especially not be neglected during a time of terminal illness.
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