Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why Religious People Don’t Want to Die

Back in March 2009, Newswise reported that a new study of terminally ill cancer patients who draw on religion to cope with their illness are more likely to receive intensive, life-prolonging medical care as death approaches –– treatment, by the way, that often entails a lower quality of life in patients’ final days. The study was by researchers at Dana-Faber Cancer Institute (a comprehensive cancer centre and an affiliate of Harvard Medical School). Earlier studies had shown that more religious patients often seek aggressive end-of-life treatment and this study shows they actually get it.

We also know from other research that religion and spirituality do provide great comfort and support for those actually dying due to a terminal illness.

The latest research contributed two basic findings: positive religious ‘copers’ had three times the odds of actually receiving life-prolonging care in the final week of life and they also were less likely to have completed living wills or do-not-resuscitate orders in advance.

So, here are my questions: Why is it that religious people (and by that we must include evangelicals and/or born-again Christians) prefer not to have to deal with death even when it is inevitable? Why do they not help make matters easier, especially for their families, by agreeing in advance to instructions that would make aggressive treatment less prominent just prior to the end of their lives? Why do their family members, even if they know their dying loved one has received eternal salvation, continue to seek and endorse such aggressive treatment to keep them alive? And why does this group do that to the extent that there is such a strong significant difference between them and the non-religious people? These are hard questions that we often do not think about. Yet the research data suggests we do just that. I don’t know about you, but it makes me wonder if there is some element of hypocrisy between what we say we believe and what we actually do. [Don’t respond to that – I may not like hearing the truth, but then again….]

I lost my mother at age 64 from an angina attack. She was in a coma. The doctors had asked what my dad and I wanted done. We replied, “Watch for any signs of improvement, take moderate measures, do not let her suffer unnecessarily, and if necessary, let her go.” Mom died that night. Nearly three decades later, I lost my father, in his early 90’s, to cancer. Again, we had the same choice and our family was around his bedside as we watched him die, struggling. The doctors had explained that if they pursued aggressive treatment measures, we would be delaying the inevitable by a day or two, not much more. As much as we loved him, we had to let him go. Those experiences, first of seeing my mom in a coma with all sorts of tubes going into and coming out of her body, and then watching my dad gasp for his last few breaths of air as he tried to reach out with his hands, pleading the doctors present for help, helped me form my current views concerning man’s desire to cling on to life.

It was in those moments, and it continues to be today (whenever I think about this topic) that “the rubber of my actions hit the road of the faith I had chosen”. If I believed then and believe now in the power of the resurrection and life after death, which I did and do – then I had/have no reason whatsoever to delay what God has ordained.

Having said that I know that there are others who would strongly disagree. I know there are others who may tell me exactly why they would do all they could to stay alive themselves and/or to keep their loved ones alive, under similar circumstances. There may even be some who can identify some scripture that may help all of us in this matter. Admittedly, I have never been in the situation of having to make such a decision where a child or a grandchild is involved (and I pray I never have to). I’m particularly interested in hearing about those situations too because I believe I can learn a lot from others who have gone through that valley.

I would love to hear from parents, from doctors, from pastors, from anyone who has some thoughts on this topic. You’ve read how I see it – now, it’s your turn to tell me how you see it. Leave us a comment now.

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