Spirituality and serious illness

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.

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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Purpose of suffering

All the major religions address the issue of suffering. It is common for people with distressing conditions to get mad about the situation, ask “Why me?”, and shake a fist at God. Expressing that anger can be very healing. It can open the heart to other important realizations, including “God loves me” and “God is with me.”

Odd as it may sound, most people eventually come to understand that bad things happen, even to good people. As they give up the idea of being able to control their life, the outcome becomes less important than the dignity and grace they use to handle each passing day. They find spiritual solace by looking for the gifts in their condition, whether it is terminal or chronic.

Some people recognize their illness as an opportunity to reflect on their life and make amends while they are still able. Some determine that their disease is God’s will and use the opportunity to surrender to a Higher Power. Finding themselves facing the intersection of the physical world with the world of spirit, others embrace a transcendent view, opening to a spacious understanding of their soul’s deathless essence.

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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.

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