CBC News posted a brief but interesting article titled Aggressive end-of-life care more common among faithful: study. I found the results intriguing because I’d noticed the trend myself while working with hospice. Unfortunately, the study didn’t really address the reasons why people of faith are more likely to utilize aggressive treatment.
(Which of course unleashed some rabid exchanges in the comment section. Religion and politics…sigh. Everyone has an opinion.)
Contrary to the usual religious/anti-religious stereotypes, what I saw taking place in my work was always far more complex. There were as many different, unique reasons for seeking (or not seeking) aggressive treatment as there were people making the choices.
Having said that, there was one thing I observed consistently:
Those who saw themselves as a part of something bigger…whether spiritually or community based…seemed to be able to cope more successfully with the hardships of dying. The larger this framework was, the more value these people seemed to still find in what was left of their lives. (They were frequently, but not always, people of religious faith. Some of the non-religious people I worked with had a spiritual, philosophical, or artistic dimension to their lives that provided them with the same kind of anchor that religion offered to others.)
On the other hand, those who identified most heavily with their individual choices and rights–their ability to control their situation, think clearly, and remain ambulatory and independent–seemed far more vulnerable to the ravages of anger and despair. Their ability to cope with the changes and losses was reduced, as was their ability to still find value in the time they had left.
I learned a lot from this, about how important it is for me to stay connected to a more expansive perspective in my own life. To make sure I walk up in the mountains, under the stars, and out in the storms as much as possible. To immerse in great music and art and literature, to constantly nourish my imagination and sense of wonder. To resurrect my trust (over and over again) by reaching out to touch others in pain. And to fight against the overpowering impulse to hide by sitting up anyway, and bravely asking my questions of the night. Because those are the kinds of things that remind me that I really do belong here and I’m not alone.
We each have to find our own bigger picture, and part of that involves choosing what meaning we’ll weave out of the darker threads of our lives. A lot of people turn to the traditional religions of the world for help because these institutions are old hands at confronting the overwhelming suffering of humanity. Over the ages they’ve developed an extraordinary array of tools for extracting the beauty and value embedded in the horrors.
But there are a lot of other people for whom established religions no longer work. And for them, the task of weaving an effective, helpful meaning for suffering can be a real challenge. I have a growing suspicion that that’s actually one of our next, great tasks as human beings–to extend the weave of the old meanings in order to incorporate all the new, great stuff we’ve developed and learned along the way.
As regards the study, I suspect that just like everyone else in the world, some of the faithful involved sought aggressive treatment at the end because they were afraid to die, while others utilized it because they still longed for and valued their lives. (In fact, they were all probably a blend of both.) And if there were more faithful than non-faithful who still found enough value in their lives to keep fighting to live it, I suspect it’s because of the larger framework their religion offered them.
Here’s a poetic example of one person’s effort to expand that meaning beyond the realm of traditional religious understanding that I found curious and beautiful. (And if you haven’t seen it, this blog is pretty amazing anyway. It’s called I Wrote This For You, and from what I’ve been able to figure out it’s the partnership of a photographer in Japan and a poet somewhere in Scandinavia. The short poetry reminds me of Rumi and Rabindranath Tagore, and can be heart wrenching, inspiring, and thought provoking all at the same time. The photography is breathtaking.)
copyright Dia Osborn 2011