"Believers" and "Non-Believers" Facing End of Life? Is There A Difference?

Dear Barbara, what can you tell me about any differences in believers and non-believers as they approach death?

It’s interesting, it seems that lately I have gotten several questions dealing with “believers” going  to heaven and “non-believers” being more frightened than believers. So here are my thoughts.  I realize I will not please everyone with my answer but here goes:

I do not see a difference between "believers” and “non-believers.” Most of us, no matter our belief, approach death with an element of fear. We haven't died before, it is the unknown, and it is scary facing the unknown----no matter what we think the end result will be. 

For believers there is often guilt and the additional fear of not living up to their expectations of entry into heaven.  I took care of the most religious person I have ever met. The Bible on her night stand, religious programs on TV, the minister making regular visits. One day she told me she was really frightened. She had done something (she didn’t tell me what and I didn’t ask) in her earlier life that she knew God would not forgive her for. She knew she was going to hell and was so frightened. Nothing could convince her otherwise, not her pastor, or our chaplain-no, she was going to hell. She fought and struggled until death finally won.

We human beings are complicated creatures. We approach death in the way we have approached living and according to our personality. Our belief systems are part of that living. Sometimes that belief system brings comfort, other times just more pain.

For those that believe in no God and no afterlife there is often less fear but —not necessarily. There are no hard and fast behaviors when it comes to dying.

I suppose ultimately how we respond to our coming death depends on how we lived our life, how we dealt with any of life’s challenges, how we address other scary experiences. 

As a movie once said “some of us like roller coasters while some of us prefer the more tame merry -go-round.”  We will approach our dying according to our personality, with the beliefs we have accumulated along the way. There probably won’t be any last minute changes.

Something More about...  "Believers" and "Non-Believers" Facing End of Life?  Is There A Difference?

My experience with patients and families who are well educated on what to expect during the dying process is that their experience is smoother, less fearful, and their grief is less complicated. If you have a special person who has been told they're unfixable, I suggest that you read my EOL Guideline Series and watch NEW RULES for End of Life Care.  Knowledge reduces fear. 

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Mary Quinn

I took a class on Spirituality at an AAHPM/HPNA conference years ago. The presenters used James Fowler’s Stages of Faith to explain what many of our patients go through, ultimately reaching Universal Acceptance. I found this very comforting and it enabled me to better support my patients.
Meeting our patients where they are and supporting them, wherever they are in their journey….

BK Books replied:
Hi Mary, thanks for the tip. I’ll check out James’ book. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara

Derianna Mooney

I, like you, have found that people who stay curious during their life time, feel curious about death and many feel unafraid.
Having worked with many natural dying in hospice and with Death with Dignity for the last 25 years, those who have a sense of humor, curiosity about death and dying, a solid foundation of friends and loved ones, approach death in a way that leads to grace and peace at the end….or is it the beginning?

BK Books replied:
Thank you, Derianna for your wise words. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara

Doug Delhay

Barbara, thank you for this posting and for taking on this subject. As a hospice chaplain and also pastor of a church for a combined total of over 65 years, I can only concur with your statement that, “Sometimes that belief system brings comfort, other times just more pain.”

My observations lead me to the say that, as death approaches an individual (and depending on their ability to comprehend that it is approaching), they are alone with what they truly believe. Obviously, I do believe that after death takes place being a “believer” vs. an “unbeliever” has a greater benefit. But that is on the other side, in the realm of the spirit. While still in this world, though dying, a person’s personal beliefs “come home to roost” so to speak, and their truest beliefs are what they have to confront the journey out of the mortal world. All other support systems fade out of the picture.

It is kind of like skydiving for the first time. You can do all manner of preparation, take part in discussions, be encouraged by others’ experiences and follow through with getting on the plane. But when it is your turn to approach the doorway for your jump, your true beliefs are what you will feel.
BK Books replied:
Hi Doug, thank you so much for sharing your wise words with me. Beautifully said. Love the sky diving example. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara

Marta de la Tejera

Dear Barbara,
I loved reading your thoughts about “Believers and non-believers”. I’ve been working as a chaplain in both hospitals and hospice settings for 9 years. What I’ve seen and learned from the patients and families I’ve had the privilege of working with, have taught me the same thing: We approach death and dying in the same unique and special way in which we lived. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight into such an important and intense subject!!
May God continue to bless you in this journey🙏🏻!!
Best regards,
Marta de la Tejera.
BK Books replied:
Hi Marta, thank you for sharing your thoughts about your experience working with end of life situations. Blessings to you in the work you are doing. Barbara

Gina Norris

My mom died at home in hospice in December of 2019. Prior to her death I was given your materials by the hospice nurse. I cannot adequately describe how much your comforting words and honest information meant to me, and how they helped me to cope and to open up more to my mom throughout her dying process.

Thank you so much!
BK Books replied:
Gina, thank you for sharing. I’m glad my words were helpful and comforting to you. Blessings! Barbara

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