Spirituality at the End of Life

Spirituality at the End of Life

In her book Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot immortalizes the words of her husband Jim Elliot: “When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.” While death is not a topic most Americans willingly embrace, men and women who engage in faith traditions understand the wisdom of those words.

Preparing for Death Practically
For people who know their deaths are imminent due to terminal illness, there are certain common steps they take to prepare for death. They might arrange their financial matters, finalize their wills, plan with their families for funeral or memorial services, and generally put their affairs in order. For those who engage in spiritual life, however, a further step remains.

Preparing for Death Spiritually
While the practical steps taken to prepare for end of life are standard, the spiritual steps are much less cut and dried. Men and women who have immersed their lives in a faith tradition may find they have additional resources available to help them navigate their new realities.

John Thoonunkal, Lead Chaplain at Calvary, shares his perspectives on the role of chaplains in various settings:

John Thoonunkal
Lead Chaplain at Calvary

“Beyond providing compassionate presence to patients and families in the challenging times of their lives, I hope chaplains can function as a sounding board or a catalyst whose presence hopefully helps patients and families to gain deeper perspectives on life, death, and the struggles therein from the depth of their own wells of wisdom.

“It is about being with them in a nonjudgmental way, while they navigate through the tapestry of end-of-life experiences exploring both strength and fragility; the love they cherish, and sometimes the feelings of remorse they feel about the past.

“Serving as an anchoring presence, chaplains can also help patients and families as they grapple with their faith amidst pain, anxiety, loss of control, and discovering new resiliency in the present phase of their journey.

“While I cherish the stories they share with its underlying trust placed in me, the opportunity to be part of their life, however brief, continues to reawaken my consciousness, and help me reshape my perspectives on the deeper dimensions of compassion, forgiveness, faith, hope, love and relationships.”

In just a few sentences, Mr. Thoonunkal – known to patients and colleagues affectionately as T.A. — has expressed the heartbeat of Calvary’s staff: Unconditional, compassionate care for both body and soul.

Spiritual Preparation
The steps of spiritual preparation might differ from individual to individual, however.

Chaplains from all faith traditions can be a major and important source of comfort to people at the end of life. Others may find spiritual comfort in connections to nature or people. As one prepares for the end of life, they may want to seek spiritual experiences that bring a sense of comfort, meaning, completion, and peace (ASCO).

Here at Calvary, just as no two patients require identical physical treatment, not every patient requires the same spiritual resources, either. Here, we are sensitive to the needs of each patient, accepting, respecting and nourishing the traditions of all backgrounds and faith traditions.

In order to assist our patients, Calvary provides a wide array of spiritual services.

Our pastoral caregivers, of all faith traditions, help our patients find spiritual comfort and strength at a difficult time. Patients and visitors may attend services or pray in our beautiful interfaith chapel at the Bronx campus. Pastoral caregivers are available to come to patients’ rooms or visit in the home, to pray — or simply be present with — patients and hold their hands. Inpatients may tune in to all religious services on their in-room televisions.

As the country’s only fully accredited acute care hospital dedicated to providing palliative care for adult advanced cancer patients, we are proud to lead the way, providing other medical care facilities an example of what is possible.

When It Comes Time to Die
It is our hope for all of our patients, that when their time comes to take their last breath, those who seek spiritual peace will have found it with the help of our spiritual care team.

One of Calvary’s core values is non- abandonment. Our goal is to ensure that all patients and families feel that they are embraced and supported through every step of this final journey.

To that end, we’ve worked to provide a wide array of services to meet our patients’ spiritual needs.

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