Most of us spend our lives wondering what will come next. From mundane tasks like which bill we have to pay, to more significant decisions like how many kids we’ll have, our minds are always a few steps ahead. For our older loved ones, though, wondering what comes next can lead to some difficult questions that lack concrete answers. Questions of spirituality and what awaits us after death can often fill their thoughts once activities like work are no longer there to take up large portions of the day.
“Older adults often have an enhanced spiritual outlook because they have more time on a daily basis to stop and reflect,” said Mary Ann Spina, a Pastoral Associate at Holy Cross Church in Deerfield, Il.
Discussing these concerns is important, but not always easy. If you’re struggling to have a meaningful conversation with a loved one about spirituality and end of life, here are some tips for how to make these conversations easier:
1. Don’t force the subject
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you allow your loved one to initiate these conversations. Put yourself in their shoes. This is an extremely personal thing to talk about. If you raise the subject when your loved one isn’t ready to discuss it, they may feel unsure, uninterested or even defensive, and unwilling to have an honest conversation. Instead, wait for them to approach you, and encourage them to explore the topic further.
When your loved one does bring up the subject, ask open-ended questions to help them open up and explore their feelings, such as:
- “Can you tell me more about that?”
- “How does that make you feel?”
- “Why do you think you feel that way?”
2. Invite a spiritual leader to talk with your loved one
Be aware that you aren’t in this alone. More than likely, you won’t be able to answer some of your loved one’s questions, and that’s okay. Columbia University’s Voices in Bioethics journal explains, “There is a sense of fragility and finality to life that certainly cannot be denied. Spiritual guidance from leaders are well placed to speak to those facts.”
Spiritual guidance from a leader will provide comfort and specific guidance in a way that you may not be able to do yourself. This may be especially important if your loved one is in a hospital, as patients with strong spiritual beliefs sometimes feel their spiritual health is neglected in favor of treatment of their physical health.
Spiritual guidance from a leader can help you and other family members feel more comfortable about reaching the end of life: Voices in Bioethics reminds us that a “spiritual leader can help promote understanding, from a religious standpoint, that medicine has its limitations and dying is part of the natural progression of some conditions.”
3. Avoid feeling like you need to solve unsolvable problems
Your loved one may be trying to resolve problems or questions near the end of their life. As much as you may wish, some problems simply have no “right” answer. According to the Canadian Virtual Hospice , people are “likely to bear [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][their] spiritual suffering more easily if [they] are able to share and discuss it with a trusted spiritual companion.”
Simply having an honest conversation about the questions or problems an older person is thinking about – even the questions with no right answer – will alleviate some of the spiritual anguish they may have. It is important to fully engage in these conversations and offer up your honest opinions and your own spiritual questions, so that your loved one does not feel alone in their desire for answers.