Preparing for Those End-of-Life Decisions

Preparing for Those End-of-Life Decisions

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


It has to be one of my least favorite things to do. It also happens to be the most spiritually moving thing to be asked to do.

It is a request I’ve heard more than once. This time it began with a phone call.

“Jim, could you meet us at the hospital. Mom is doing very poorly and we have decided to remove her from life support. We would so appreciate it if you were there when that happens.”

I hurriedly cleaned up, got dressed and headed for the hospital, where I was greeted with a question that, I believe has no good answer.

“Do you think we are doing the right thing? We know Mom never wanted to be on life support. She even left a living will saying just that. But we thought it would only be for a short time and she would be breathing on her own and on the way to recovery. The doctors are now certain that will not happen. She will never recover.”

Every caregiver who has ever faced the need to make such a decision will immediately recognize the trauma and spiritual upheaval such a need encompasses. I would hope no pastor or counselor would ever answer it for another person. It is a deeply personal decision. If I, the pastor, give a definitive answer, there may well be a lingering angst within the one who must answer the question, “Did he give me the right advice?” The decision has to be owned by the one making it.

That said, what is the role of the one counseling, the one the family member or friend trusts? Briefly, it is to be there, holding hands (so to speak), offering assurance of God’s grace and freedom to decide, and offering comfort and support for whatever decision is reached. It is not the job of anyone to make the decision for someone else. Doing so runs the risk of imposing one’s own theology and morals on someone else. That can be spiritually damaging to both parties.

How important it is for churches to offer opportunities to their parishioners and neighbors to explore this issue as a faith community before the need arises. Think adult education classes, forums on death and dying, sermons on the meaning of life, or lay leadership training. It is an issue that is not going away and goes to the heart of what we believe.

What does it mean to trust in a loving, forgiving, God?

What does it mean to declare God the Lord of life and death?

Individually, wrestle with the issue on a personal level. What if I had to make that decision?

Above all, empathize with those who must make such difficult choices.