It doesn’t matter whether you are religious or not, death and dying provoke a questioning of our spirituality, purpose and meaning. The person who is dying, whether from cancer or something else, needs to have a very particular kind of spiritual support that recognises an aspect of our reality which is often overlooked in a busy, healthy life. Death is rarely given real, introspective thought when the prospect of impending death is not contained personally within your own life or someone close to you. When it does become a reality, it helps to have some guidance to deal with it.
A non-religious background
Religion is a polarising topic, profoundly embraced by individuals, families and cultures, but shunned by many. The many choose their own belief systems which often feel better than following a concept of God, or being preached to, some say judged, while others just feel religion is the cause of too much suffering in the world and do not wish to be aligned with it.
What does appear to be true is that despite not choosing religion, many people still wish to have a spiritual experience in their lives. There is a perpetual and irresistible longing for a deep contentment, peacefulness and sense of inner connection. This is the catalyst which is fully awoken when life presents the recognition of our mortality.
Religion offers guidance for coping with life’s challenges, whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or like me, Bahai. Specific information and practices are given. All this creates a support network and a pathway which really is very helpful for an individual or family dealing with an illness that is leading to loss: the loss of one’s own life, or loss of a loved one. A vague relationship with a family religious belief may evolve into a strong connection to spiritual strength once the fear of death has been engaged.
Death can still be scary
All human beings react to death and dying as a natural survival instinct prevails, and a natural desire to keep loved ones with us for as long as possible. Knowing how to go forward and deal with each day is a journey which unfolds for everyone regardless of affiliation with a belief system. Questions that provide a framework for coming to terms with end of life also provide a clear pathway, because when satisfactory answers have been found, it is easier to let go and have acceptance.
Questions about death
Will I continue after my death, in some form? Many people from all walks of life talk about life after death, whether it is spiritual or reincarnation. This is because we all have a need to continue, it is a core need to be of some importance, that our life is genuinely significant, and above all, that we are loved. It is so helpful to recognise that someone facing death is thinking like this, so that these thoughts and feelings can be talked about. A conversation about death needs to respectfully consider religious or non-religious backgrounds: not to see it as an opportunity to preach or teach, but to provide that loving support which allows the individual to navigate through fears about dying.
Certain barriers are carried routinely by people to protect themselves from being judged every day. You might have to drop your own barriers to be truly supportive of someone who is dying. To expose your inner soft and compassionate self, to listen without any judgement of your own, and to allow a conversation to flow naturally. This is when real fears are expressed, and it can be so comforting and healing for someone to finally release these fears in a supportive and nurturing environment.
What is spirituality?
Defining our spirituality helps to cope with fear. Spirituality is that strong inner voice that speaks of feelings, hope and love. It can be called the gut feeling, the gentle and sacred self that we often want to protect and hide from the world. Some call it our soul, the non-physical aspect of ourselves that is our motivating life force. A connection with our spirituality is enhanced when we do ‘soul-enriching’ things, like sing, listen to music or play an instrument, meditate, pray, be of service to others, create a garden, teach, love someone, guide and protect a child, care for an animal, help someone who is suffering. Suffering itself is a soul-enriching experience as we learn first hand what pain and difficulties feel like, creating within us a genuine sense of empathy and compassion for others. Our spirituality is further enhanced when we acquire beliefs such as ‘treating others how we would like to be treated.’
When we recognise our own spirituality, it is easier to support someone who is fearful of death. It isn’t always easy, and we may feel inadequate, but understanding how they feel may help you to support without falling apart. If you fear losing someone you love, it is helpful to strengthen your own spiritual self so you can allow them to let go.
‘Acceptance is embracing life on its own terms. We are open to what is, rather than wishing for something different. We face the truth in all circumstances with honesty and courage. Acceptance helps us to bend without breaking in the winds of tests, to gather the lessons and step forward with new wisdom and awareness. We affirm others and ourselves for the qualities we do have and avoid judgement and criticism for what we don’t have. Accepting myself allows me to give what I have to the world.’ The Virtues Project International Reflection Cards