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Ministering to the terminally ill

By Jewell Johnson

The disease has spread to other organs," the surgeon told Robert and his family. "The outlook is not good. We can try..."

Each day someone hears these words. Perhaps a member of your congregation has been told a disease will eventually end his life.

Persons with terminal illnesses need physical, emotional, and spiritual support. Family members, friends, doctors, and nurses can help. However, the spiritual advisor’s role is unique, for he or she focuses on the spiritual needs of the ill person. These guidelines will help one minister effectively to the terminally ill.

Make frequent visits

Family and friends often bypass people with terminal illnesses. The reasons vary. For example, a daughter made infrequent visits to her cancer-stricken mother. "I can’t bear to see Mom this way," she admitted.

The disease may limit the ill person. While he has been active all his life, now he is out of the mainstream shelved. He may feel isolated and alone.

The spiritual advisor visits on a regular basis. Frequent, short visits are most meaningful. It is important to the ill person to know his spiritual advisor cares and is available for him.

Accept him where he is. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book, Death and Dying, identifies five stages the terminally ill person will experience:

1. Denial–"not me."

2. Anger–"why me?"

3. Bargaining–"yes, me, but....

4. Depression–"oh, me."

5. Acceptance–"yes, me."

These stages may not follow in order. They can overlap. Not every person will reach acceptance.

When Jane was told cancer had spread to her lungs, she said, "I feel fine. I’m sure the doctor is wrong." To help Jane effectively, the spiritual advisor will accept her denial of the disease.

Be a good listener

Pull your chair close. Give the ill person your full attention. Allow him to talk if he wants to. Avoid false cheerfulness–"everything will be all right" attitude. This denies the person the chance to share his fears and anxieties. He may be afraid of pain or frustrated at the thought of dying. One man had this concern, "Who’s going to care for my wife when I’m gone?"

If you can’t answer all questions, admit it. Some questions do not have answers at the time. It is more important for the ill person to verbalize his concerns than to receive answers.

The ill person may share some information in confidence. Don’t make this public. Maintain confidences.

"My need is for a friend," a terminally ill woman said, "someone who is willing to listen and share my struggles and unanswered questions." The pastor can be that friend.

Use God’s resources

The world for the ill person is changing. He may be receiving new treatments and medications. Possibly he is seeing several doctors-some unfamiliar to him. His body is changing. There are decisions to make. In this unsettled climate, God and His Word are constant anchors to hold to. Share a Scripture portion and offer prayer at each visit. What are his prayer concerns? Pray with him about these. When possible, encourage him to pray.

The Lord’s Supper points ahead to a time when illness will be abolished. Give the ill person regular opportunities to participate in this time of renewal.

Nourish hope

Living with a serious illness is discouraging. Pain and weakness often bring despair. The advisor will encourage an attitude of hope-not a false hope that "nothing bad can happen to you" but a confidence in God who loves him and watches over his life.

The ill person may hope for a cure. If the disease progresses, his hope may shift to lesser, more immediate goals. One terminally ill mother wanted to attend the Mother’s Day program in her son’s school. With the support of her doctor and family, she realized this goal.

The spiritual advisor can encourage hope. God’s love is unchanged. Jesus promised, "I will never leave you." A hopeful attitude will bring quality to the ill person’s days no matter how much time he has left.

Know your limitations

Rarely can one person meet all the needs of the ill person. Consider yourself part of the health-care team. Don’t give medical advice. If the sick person has questions about his care, suggest he talk to the doctor or a family member.

Humor helps

Smiles are like medicine. Laughter is wholesome. It breaks down tension and brings a sense of normalcy to life for the ill person. Be sure humor is appropriate for the situation, however, or it can be offensive.

The unconscious person

As body processes shut down during a serious illness, we can’t be sure how much the unresponsive person understands. His hearing often remains sharp although he appears unaware of his surroundings. Identify yourself to this person even if family members say he can’t hear you. It is appropriate to read Scripture and pray with him. You may want to sing a hymn. Familiar words and a voice he recognizes are comforting even if he doesn’t understand all you say.

Terminally ill persons need more than painkillers and comfort measures. They also need spiritual strength to go through life’s deepest valley. Sensitive, caring pastors are part of the team that provides this strength.

Other sources: A Family Guide to Death and Dying, Tyndale, Wheaton, Illinois, 1987, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service Taking Time, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, 1986.