- Posted by jdavis on June 10, 2011
Discussing religion or spirituality with someone who is seriously ill can be tricky. You have to first make sure they are open to the topic.
By Linda Foster, MA
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
For some people who are ill, discussing faith and religious beliefs can relieve stress, offer a sense of purpose, and help maintain hope. Religion appears to empower some people when they are sick, particularly those with serious and disabling medical illness, and help them better cope and experience psychological growth from their negative health experiences, rather than be defeated or overcome by them. Research has shown that discussing spirituality and death is especially difficult, but most people appreciate having their wishes known and being able to determine how their death might be handled.
Here’s how you might approach the discussion of faith and religion without frightening or offending your loved one.
Discussing Faith In Times of Crisis
“All people have a system of ideas and beliefs that they use to make meaning out of their experience,” says Ben Brewer, PsyD, a psychotherapist in Denver. “These often take the form of different philosophical positions and spiritual or religious beliefs,” which are a by-product of our personal experiences and our culture. It’s important to respect individual differences in philosophical, spiritual, and religious beliefs, as well as individual emotional needs.”
During times of illness, crisis, and loss, many people tend to think more deeply about what they believe to be true about the world, Brewer notes. A pilot study conducted at Stanford University showed that most individuals in hospice felt that their faith offered significant comfort. Often, however, conflict arises from the differing views of people in intense situations such as the serious illness of someone in the family. For instance, if one person in the family has a terminal illness, at times family members may not agree about the religious or spiritual meaning they attach to this difficult situation.
One of the most useful things to remember in when it comes to personal beliefs is that every person, no matter their age, can decide for themselves what to believe, and there is no universal “right or wrong” answer. Brewer suggests that many people respond best to open-ended questions such as, “What do you think about your situation?” or “How do you make sense of what is happening?” These types of questions encourage your loved one to state what they believe without you imposing your beliefs on them.
Different Cultures, Different Approaches to Spirituality
“Determining the best time to discuss philosophical, spiritual, or religious ideas can be straightforward. Gently ask if your loved one might be interested in discussing their beliefs,” says Brewer. “However, some people are not comfortable discussing their beliefs with others and this is a choice that you should respect.” If you find yourself pushing your loved one into discussing religion or agreeing with a particular philosophy of yours, ask yourself if you’re doing this for your loved one or for yourself.
Many cultures have different ideas about how to talk about death and illness. “It’s very important to consider cultural context when discussing these issues,” says Brewer. If you have a feeling that bringing up impending death or illness does not match your loved one’s personal or cultural view of their situation, then it’s probably safer to ask them how they see their situation and not try to change their beliefs or take away any hope that they might have.
It is important to take into account cultural concerns as well as being truthful about the severity of the situation. Brewer believes that it is rarely helpful in most cultures to be untruthful with someone about their condition, although there are specific ways of breaking bad news in many cultures that might sound unusual to people from other cultures.
Respecting Your Loved One’s Wishes
People vary enormously in their desire to discuss faith or religion, and there is no single best way to approach the topic. It’s very personal. Understand that your loved one may not wish to talk about it at all — some may just want a sympathetic ear while others may wish to see a religious figure from their faith.
Discussing faith need not be complex or stressful. Be clear with yourself about your motivations before you attempt to discuss spirituality with a loved one who is ill. Respect your loved one’s beliefs and the way he or she chooses to practice or not practice their beliefs.