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

12 months ago

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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Jordan M
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