The topic no one wants to talk about

Published on Friday, 23 May 2014 23:40 - Written by Rebecca Hoeffner rhoeffner@tylerpaper.com

What characterizes a good death? That’s the question Michael Balboni, a Harvard researcher, asked clergy in a Tyler focus group recently as part of a national research project.

Our culture seems to be of the notion that a good death is “no death.” We don’t like to talk about it in general, and we certainly don’t like to think about our own.

Balboni has a particular interest in what he calls the “gap” between the medical world and the spiritual world, especially at the end of life.

“There’s a built-in divide between the care of the soul and the care of the body,” he said.

Balboni gave an example of someone with incurable cancer who is praying for a miracle. This person is confident God will answer their prayer the way they want, so instead of choosing to use hospice services and getting his or her affairs in order, they make medical decisions from the frame of mind that they will be cured.

Balboni asked the clergy in the Tyler focus group if they prayed for miracles, and many of them do.

“Some clergy (who were interviewed) were not aware of that unintended consequence,” he said. “Some were aware of the dichotomy. One even said he worried about ‘giving false hope.’”

It’s a slippery slope; how do you address two issues many see as being at odds?

“We want to seek solutions that are faithful to the faith community and to the limits of modern medicine,” Balboni said. “Going into hospice is not a faithless act.”

Many people see accepting hospice services as giving up, but it isn’t. Going on hospice doesn’t make someone die faster; food and treatments aren’t withheld (as a hospice volunteer, you’d be surprised the myths I’ve heard). My fellow volunteers and I like to point out that, although it’s rare, some patients are so relieved from the symptom management that they actually get better and don’t need the services anymore.

Hospice is simply a focus on the quality of life, instead of choosing poor quality of life for the possibility to stretch out the length of time we have.

To me, someone’s time on hospice is deeply spiritual; perhaps accepting it is our way of saying to God ‘Whatever You want to do, I trust that You want the best for me.”

Several of the clergy pointed out that, at least in some faith traditions, there is healing after death and sometimes God chooses to answer prayers that way.

Can we assume to know what God will do if, as the Bible said, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him?”