Friday, August 24, 2012

Death is a Spiritual, Not a Medical, Experience

The title is not mine.  It's from an article that appeared in The Christian Century some years back.  I no longer have the article, but I recall the statement, because it so succinctly reflected my own views.

Let me state my own prejudices up front:

I am not much of a fan of modern medical technology, particularly as applied in end-of-life scenarios.  I am all for the judicious use of medical treatment, but by "judicious," I mean that which takes into account the whole person and those whom she loves and who are loved by her, and in which the focus is not solely on bodily functions in disarray.

I have lost so many people close to me in sudden and horrific ways that I feel tremendous anger and frustration when I see those with the opportunity to be present to the transition from this life to the next let it slip from their fingers in environments designed primarily around technological advances.

That said, I recognize that everyone is, of course, entitled to make his own decisions about medical care.

A friend of a friend is in the hospital right now, dying of cancer.  Guessing the family to be disconnected from spiritual resources, I have offered my presence a couple of times over the last several months, and a couple of times more over the past week.  I have tried to be unobtrusive, and I have suggested, through the others through whom I communicate, taking advantage of the excellent pastoral care department in the hospital.

Last night I vented a bit of my frustration and sorrow to my own family.  "They have pulled out all the big guns, left no stone unturned, in addressing this disease," I said.  "The very best that modern medicine can offer has been brought to bear on this situation from Day One.  But they have never, to my knowledge, sought even the most basic expertise where the spiritual aspects of long term illness are concerned."

I'm sure there are a number of reasons. Unfamiliarity with what might be available.  Discomfort with clergy or other pastoral caregivers.  Fear that someone will attempt to force her own religious beliefs upon an already fragile psyche. 

But . . .  but . . .  but . . .I can say this, having been treated for cancer last year: I was unfamiliar with what was available, uncomfortable with medical professionals, and fearful that they would try to impose their own views on me.  None of that stopped me from seeking help from those trained, experienced, and available to offer it.

How how we gotten ourselves into this situation, where we grasp at technological straws which might at best extend physical life expectancy by a bit, but we turn away from the significant and substantial benefits of spiritual care?

I wonder if people would more readily welcome what we pastors and spiritual directors and chaplains  have to offer if we got ourselves some kind of big blinking and beeping machine to push around in front of us?

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