Spirituality and serious illness

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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.

Purpose of Suffering

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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Difficult questions

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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Ritual and Religion 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 Good Samaritan Hospice 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, Good Samaritan Hospice’s chaplains are available for prayer, hymn singing, communion, Scripture reading, anointing, etc. At Good Samaritan Hospice, 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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