There is a new series of blogposts at the Huffington Post Religion page about issues in end of life care written by Rev. Dr. Martha R. Jacobs. The first post is a general outline regarding facing the notion of our mortality. Her first post, entitled a Christian Guide to Confronting End of Life Issues, is something that can resonate for all of us, even though she presents her views through the eyes of Christian theology. I have excerpted most of the text and included some of my thoughts on the topic.
Abraham Verghese, M.D., recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled, “Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan.” Dr. Verghese pointed out that doctors are literally losing touch with their patients because they are looking at test results instead of at the patient him or herself. In effect, the patient becomes an “ipatient,” while the “real patient feels neglected.” The patient is looked at from the perspective of their disease or ailment or symptoms and not as being fully human…
The basic premise behind much of spiritual care is the idea that we are a composite of our bodies, minds and souls. We are not just a body being treated for a physical ailment, but all physical ailments have corresponding spiritual and emotional ailments as well. When we get sick, we become depressed, fearful, introspective, etc.
As western thought shifted away from seeing the person as this composite, medicine did the same. Doctors before the modern era were often spiritual healers as well. While there is not a groundswell of thought to return to such a model, for it was flawed and lacked the precision of knowledge we have today, there is a general push in society that wants doctors to provide holistic care.
We also need to look at ourselves as being fully human because a part of being human is the recognition that we will one day die. There is a 100 percent death rate in our world. And yet, there is silence on the issues that surround people as they near death. We need to accept ourselves as unique human beings who have fears and concerns about living and about dying. And we need to begin to have conversations about our mortality while we are still healthy…
Human beings both affirm and deny their mortality in the same breath. In most religions, the daily liturgy contains references to death, often in relationship to resurrection in some future time. While we say these words, we do not heed what the message is behind those words. In a talk I gave to clergy about end of life care advocacy, I noted that as clergy, we are challenged with teaching people about our liturgy and what it means. The problem is, if we ourselves don’t accept the inevitability of death, how can we possibly teach it to others.
Their is much literature regarding the denial of death being something ingrained in each of us. It can take years of meditative and contemplative practice to be able to sustain the thought of our own demise for more than mere seconds.
I believe that the greatest gift we can give to our loved ones is letting them know what our wishes are as to how we want our bodies treated as we near the end of our life. Each person’s wishes are unique, so we need to tell those who love and care about us what our wishes are while we are still healthy. Conversations need to happen before we are wheeled into the ER, when it is too late to have “those” conversations.
Keep in mind that a conversation like this is not something that can be done randomly. I do think that good communication within one’s family would be quite helpful, but while we often say things on the spur of the moment, it is important that families carve aside time once in a while to not only discuss end of life wishes, but to also make certain that those wishes haven’t changed (which they often do when a person or his/her loved one is in the moment as opposed to when they were talking in a more abstract context). This is true regardless of one’s cultural and religious dictates regarding medical ethics, for in most families, there is not a single system of thought that runs throughout. Families are diverse and as such, a religious child might not be comfortable with the wishes of a parent who is not religious. Or parent and child have different rabbis or religious leaders who advise differently. All of these situations should be discussed openly and honestly. We are challenged with this task because death could come at any time and we must always make sure our families are prepared.