One of my personal self care goals as a religious/spiritual person is to be more disciplined in my own devotional life. Being a morning person, that means reserving time each morning for my own study and prayer. Currently, I’m reading the whole of the Bible- both Hebrew and Christian scriptures cover to cover, a couple chapters a day. As a Christian where the practice is to have specific portions of scripture appointed for reading each week, I have never read the sacred texts this way. To be clear, I am not a Biblical scholar. So this is not “study” in the scholarly sense. It is reading as the scriptures present themselves and sitting with whatever they seem to be saying to me on a given day. My hope is to be more in touch with the broader themes rather than just seeing each weekly portion in depth but often out of context.
What I see now in the texts is so often new because it is colored by my current life experience. So, in Genesis, the way death and end of life decisions were handled has jumped out for me in a way it never has before because being aware of the ways people make decisions about how they are going to die- or do not make those decisions- feels like part of my daily existence. Now, granted, the ability to delay death was almost non-existent then compared to our own day and a good number of those whose death is recorded especially in Hebrew scriptures are reported to have lived to a very old age. Still, death came and that inevitability didn’t mean that anyone had to accept this fact with equanimity or prepare both oneself and one’s loved ones for it and what this change would mean for their lives.
Whether we are religious or not, the last two chapters of the book of Genesis provide some great modeling about how to handle the end of one’s life. In Chapter 49, Jacob, after telling his twelve sons he is about to die, gathers them for a final blessing- or maybe more accurately some last honest words of wisdom about who each is and what their lot will be going forward. And not every “blessing” is good news or was likely easy to hear for the recipient. Most notably, Reuben, the first born, who would normally be preeminent is told he will not be because he is “unstable as water”. Maybe a little “tough love”. After the blessings are done, Jacob gives specific instructions on where he is to be buried and then “he drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last.” In Chapter 50, the same basic scenario is repeated for Jacob’s most famous son, Joseph.
Research may be suggesting that we who are religious are more prone to use aggressive care at the end of life even when death is inevitable- and we are not alone in this tendency in the modern world. Why this is remains unclear. However, it is reasonable to presume that many religious people believe we are somehow commanded to preserve life at all costs as a duty to God- no matter how old we are or how full a life we have led. Certainly, Jacob and Joseph present us with a quite different model. That model says that there will be a time for all of us when our life as we know it will be done and it will be time to be, like Jacob, “gathered to his people.”
Whether we come to this appreciation in our own lives as a result of some religious belief or some other way is not the point. The point is that it is possible to come to the point in our lives where we accept that we will die and that is OK and coming to that point in our understanding is a blessing to both ourselves and to our loved ones. For those of us who are health care providers, finding peace with this inevitability in our own lives is not only a gift to ourselves and our loved ones, but a gift to our patients and their loves ones as well. Our comfort and calm with the inevitability of our own death will communicate itself to our patients and help them to find this peace for themselves and their loved ones.
Note- Biblical translations are from the English Standard Version