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Living with dying

Religion, faith and philosophy

Many people we talked to had a philosophy, faith or belief that made it easier for them to come to terms with terminal illness, death and dying. For example, some people firmly believed in Jesus Christ and life after death.

 

She is a Christian and looks forward to life after death.

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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You said earlier that your faith has helped you.

Yes.

Its helped you in how you live and it's helped you at the thoughts of the end of living might come.

Yes, I'm not afraid. Yes.

Can you explain a bit more about that?

Well, we came into this earth... I think that you're not wood or stone, you are going to die. Just some of us just go quick, and some have a longer suffering. I don't know why. But I think when you believe in God and believe that he loves you and he sent his only son Jesus Christ to die for you and there is a place that when you leave this earth you going to go there and live, and be happy, and no more pain, no more sorrow. I think you look forward to that and I'm not saying I'm not afraid of death, because I don't know what its like, but whatever it is when it come I just have to face it. 

Because if there is a God, then as he said 'there is no pain for a dead child of God'. There is life, you just go through another door. Just slip away. And I believe it. I believe that. If it not so, well bad luck to me! 

But you believe that we're going to be going on to another life?

I think so, I think so. There is life.
 

One woman said that she was a 'true Christian believer' and had no fear of death. She was convinced that when someone dies the spirit leaves the body. When she felt very ill she said that death would be welcome. One man asserted that a belief in life after death could help him face death without fear. He finds it very important to pray for this belief.

 

She is a Christian and believes that at death the spirit leaves the body.

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 57
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I'm a true Christian believer, I have no dread about death. In fact when I'm feeling very unwell, or depending on however my illness chooses to affect me on any particular day, I would welcome it.  

So you believe that after death there's something else?

Oh yes, yes.

Have you got any idea what it is?

No and I don't really think we're meant to. I have been privileged, I think is the right word, although it was a bit scary at the time, each of my husbands has died in my arms and there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that as someone dies that spirit, that essence, you physically see it go. And what you're left with, well putting it bluntly is just a carcass and it really doesn't matter whether you bury it or burn it or put it under the sea, whatever, that isn't going to make any difference to the person it was. 

I'm sure you've experienced this, you're thinking about somebody and then right out of the blue they happened to ring you, right there and then. There is something a bit more than we can actually explain on this earth, that's my interpretation of it. 

I was very, very cross when my mother died, seemingly out of the blue, and it was a long, long time before I could reconcile myself to this way of thinking. And it was just because a visiting clergyman gave a sermon and he was talking about bereavement and he happened to say, "Well of course you've got to realise, God isn't going to take the naughty ones, he's always going to take the best'. So I'm afraid I'm a bit naughty so I'm having to wait my turn.

 

He believes in life after death and thinks that we should pray for the grace to have no fear.

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Age at interview: 74
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 72
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Well because I believe in the after life and I say I believe in it, but I pray to believe in it. I pray for the grace to believe in it. I pray for a deepening of faith all the time. Well, I say all the time, but I mean that is what I do when I pray, which is not nearly as much as I should do. But I pray for the trust and belief that this life is a prelude to the after life and that the after life is what counts.  

Do you think that helps you, and other people who feel like... that have a more accepting, positive attitude to serious illness and the prospect of dying?

Yes, yes, absolutely.

Can you explain that a bit more?

Well if one believes, and one has to pray for this belief because none of our belief is, except for saints, as strong as it should be, and as trusting as it should be, but if you accept that there is an almighty God who created the heavens and earth and everything in it, and that almighty God is a loving God and loves each one of us and that his son came down to this earth and redeemed us all and rose again so that we should have eternal life then one prays for the belief that one should accept and learn to trust and, and have joy in the love of God and that his will is what is best for all of us.

Do you think that can help people who have got that kind of belief to feel less fearful when they have a serious illness?

Yes, yes, yes I think it can, but as I was saying, I think we all need to pray more for the grace to have no fear. 

I mean, of course, it's natural that we should have fear and that's why one needs to pray more. Hand everything over.

Some people were unsure about the future, opting to keep an 'open mind'. One man hoped that there might be something 'behind the curtain', but found it hard to believe in life after death and wondered if he were simply 'clutching at straws'.

 

She has stopped worrying about whether or not there is a God and accepts the situation.

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Age at interview: 82
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 64
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Do you think it helps people if they've got a particular philosophy of life or particular religious views at this stage of life or doesn't it matter?

I don't think it's essential, but I think for people for whom it is very real it obviously is a great help. I think I made up my mind when I was in my late fifties that I would try and decide by the time I was 60 whether I really believed in God or not and that if I didn't I would then give up trying and forget and stop worrying about it, which is what I have done, and so now I aim just to accept what comes.

So you're not the kind of person that thinks there's something going to happen after this life?

I've got a very open mind about it. There may be. 

But you're open-minded?

Yes.  
 
 
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He would like to believe that there is something after death but wonders if he is 'clutching at...

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Age at interview: 53
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 50
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Do you have any particular philosophical view or religious view about life and death?

Everybody would like to hope that if they peep behind the curtain, there's something there. There are probably greater minds than I have, thought about it. And others say, 'Well, what is the point of this life if there isn't something there?'  But are you grabbing at straws again, just for your own sake?

So would you say you've just got an open mind on it?

Yes. I don't know whether you say you die when you die or what if there is something? Everyone sort of says, 'You've got to make the first move to say, yes, I believe', and all that nonsense. But, is it again, clutching at straws?

Yes. I understand what you mean.

Is it for the right reasons?

Yes.  

I'll find out before you.

A woman with cancer of the kidney explained that although she described herself as a humanist, rather than a Christian, she found it comforting to know that others were praying for her. A man with mesothelioma also said that he wasn't religious, but was glad to know that others were praying for him, willing him to get better.

 

Says she is probably a humanist but finds it comforting to know that others are praying for her.

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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Yes. I think probably I'm a humanist. I think I'm a philosophical person in that I'm not the sort to think everything, 'Why me?'  I would prefer to think, 'Hey, lucky me, I responded well to the treatment and so on'.  I don't... Yes I have found it comforting, for example my plumber is a friend of my son's and so he happens to know about the illness and so on. When he came, he said, 'Oh by the way, just to let you know that, you know, we are ' God people' we are". Or something, he said, "And I do pray for you every night. And my two kids, they say who should we pray for tonight", and he says 'Pray for [name] and [name]'s Mum.

And I thought, 'How lovely'. And somebody else... and then this plumber's Dad who was also a plumber told me that some people in St Agnes that he knows well, who I don't know from Adam, they have never met me but they pray for me every night. I thought, 'How lovely of people, really'. And my friend, who is a Methodist minister said, 'You know, if you want me to pray with you any time, you know I'll happily do that'.  And I said, 'Oh no, I don't think so. That's kind of not me'. And she said, 'Oh that's fine'. Well there might be a time when I would like her to pray with me, I don't know.

I suppose my philosophy is that people are the most important things and that we are actually here on this earth not only to enjoy ourselves but to try to make life happy for others. And I like looking after people and doing things, cooking for people and so on. I can't do so much of that now. I also love life really. I don't have any belief that there is any afterlife, though sometimes I kind of wonder because some people report strange experiences of hearing from their mother or whatever from beyond the grave as it were. But personally I think you know, 'You're here, you've got one crack at it and when you're gone, you're gone really". 

So I suppose part of my aim is to leave behind me, if I can, a legacy of happiness for my children, my friends... and to enjoy all the beauty and glories that are around us in the world, really. Now... some days that's easier than others, as I say. I like fine weather and sunshine and when its pouring sometimes it's a bit more difficult to be uplifted.

A woman with bowel cancer suggested that great comfort could be drawn from other religions too.

 
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Thinks that great comfort can be drawn from other religions even if you are not religious.

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Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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I think there's a lot of incredible comfort to be drawn from other religions, even if you're not religious. Just their sort of philosophy and their approach that is death is just the end of this part of existing. Not necessarily the end of everything and yes, something to be mourned by others but you're not going to be doing the mourning. And I think again it's a question of choosing whatever helps you in your predicament from whatever source and not restricting oneself to what you've been part of or used to in your own life, or the way you were brought up. There are alternatives there to look at and explore and if they help you that's great.

A few people said that they lost some of their faith when they became ill. For example, a Jewish man said he felt 'betrayed' and 'let down' by his religion because even though he had been told there was eternal life he had just found happiness in this life but couldn't appreciate it because he felt so ill.

 

She lost her faith when she developed sarcoma but now that she has survived two years she wonders...

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Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 57
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When I had the breast cancer I decided there was nobody up there, regardless. I did used to go to church, I was confirmed, I did used to take confirmation but I dropped it some years ago, but still at the back of me I thought yes there is a God. There are some good things in the world, but then the horrible things that are happening I think no there can't be. And then when I got breast cancer I thought no it can't be, it's just that. I've never thought much more about it until I got the sarcoma and then in a complete state of shock there is definitely not a God. 

I was quite convinced I was right, there was absolutely nothing. But you see time has gone on and I'm still here. I've survived my two years. So occasionally I'll say to [my husband] now, 'Perhaps there is somebody up there.' I don't know, maybe as time goes on I might change again.
 

A man with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma did not believe in life after death but he believed in a superior 'power'. He pointed out that if you have a family your genes continue even after death. He also stressed that in this life we can influence other people, and the way they live their lives, and thus leave a legacy in that way.

 

Says that people live after death through their genes and because they influence the way others...

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Age at interview: 72
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 71
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Religion is important to me, perhaps not quite as deep as a lot of people. A lot of people are convinced there is life after death... That is not one of my philosophies. My belief in life after death is that the way you live your life influencing other people. If you have a family then you pass on certain aspects on through your genes, but I think the way you deal with other people is far more important really because that probably influences the way they live their lives and I'm a firm believer in that some of you, part of you will continue in other people after you're gone, yeah.

So when you ask yourself what's the meaning of life, dying and death is that the answer you come up with?

Yes.

Yeah, and that's your...?

Life is important while we're on this earth and we must live it to the best of our ability and deal with other people to the best of our ability and bring our families up to the best of our ability. But I don't think we should have a great fear of death. I think we, as a nation, tend to look at death as something terrible, awful. We don't treat it as part of the process of life which is a pity really. 

When you see some of the programmes about the way other people live in other countries they've got a much more straight forward attitude to death.

A woman with a strong moral sense that people should treat each other well, not because of religion but to 'make the world a better place' said that she could believe in spacemen or aliens more than she could believe in God. Another person said she hoped she had been a good influence on her family. She wanted to contribute to the Healthtalk website partly because she saw it as a form of legacy she could be remembered by.

Most people who had no religious beliefs and didn't believe in life after death, recognised the comfort that others might draw from their religion and were careful not to offend them. However, one man noted the hypocrisy of some religious people and the harm that religion does in the world as a focus of conflict.

People who had seen death, either of people close to them or because of their work, often said that it helped them to see death as a natural process and nothing to be afraid of. One man said we should accept death as 'part of life'. Another man, a scientist and atheist, said that he wanted to be buried so that he could be 'recycled' to help whatever came along, 'whether the worms or whatever'. He certainly didn't want life hereafter but understood that people who had such beliefs found them comforting.

 

Says that death is part of life and that we should accept death without fear.

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Age at interview: 84
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 82
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We've talked quite a lot about death and dying today.Could you explain why you feel peaceful with the idea of death?

Well because I think first of all that death is obviously part of life. Nothing is immortal in the living world except those very small creatures, which can split in half and make two creatures indefinitely. But for larger bodied creatures who can't do that, their sloughing off their mortal coil is a perfectly physiological thing. Now we humans can look ahead and fear death if we are so minded but the thing is not to fear death. 

One can be afraid of a painful death or sorry for people you leave behind and that sort of thing but various arrangements can be made for those people and pain control is so well organised now by the hospice movement and so on that that needn't worry one and I think the thing is just to accept that that's what happens.

Thank you very much. So you've just been talking about your feelings about death and you feel comfortable about the idea of dying. Do you have any belief in an afterlife?

No, I don't myself, because I feel that our bodies are like the bodies of animals and we don't think they have an afterlife so why should we think that we have an afterlife. If you do, you have to say that at some point in human evolution things suddenly became different. From that point on, people had an afterlife.  Well I think that strains credulity beyond the point that one can cope with.

Thank you.

 
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He doesn't believe in life after death and feels at peace with the idea that his body will decay...

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Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 66
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My views are very simplistic. As a person with a scientific background I know about conservation of energy. Energy is never lost within the Universe and I'm content to believe that I'm all part of a much bigger thing. When I say bigger thing I don't mean any supernatural being, I don't know how the Universe started. I do believe that sometime there will be a scientific explanation for it and I find that I'm sufficiently fulfilled to think that okay, I will die and as I said earlier, I will be recycled. I will go onto be a part of something else.  Whatever it is, it doesn't really matter. I'm not thinking of reincarnation or anything like that. I don't believe I have another life hereafter. In fact, I don't want to go into this too much. I don't want to upset anybody. 

These are very much my personal views which satisfy me, but the thought of a life hereafter makes me shudder to be honest.

I don't want a life hereafter. No, no. I certainly don't want that.

But from what you've said, because of your beliefs and because of the fulfilled life you've had, you can view the future with some sort of equanimity.

Yes I enjoy life. I don't want to die, who does? But I enjoy life very much. I'd like somebody to wave a magic wand and say to me 'Your illness has gone away. You've got another ten, fifteen years ''

A woman whose father had died of motor neurone disease said that she found it hard to comfort him because his logical mind and background as a scientist prevented him from having a faith in any religion or a belief in an afterlife. She said that her father was very frightened of dying, but emotional and spiritual support was lacking. She had long conversations with him about death, and as a result her own religious faith was strengthened. She wanted to pass on a message to others that they should not be afraid of death.

 

Her father was afraid of dying and she found it hard to comfort him because he didn't have faith...

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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We were talking about preparing for death in a spiritual sense. Can you say anything about that in relation to your father?

Well the difficulty with my father was that he was an agnostic stroke atheist, I don't quite know what you'd call it and there is a difficulty I think with people who don't have a faith or a philosophy about that because when you get to the stage where you are facing death there doesn't seem to be any support. You know if he'd been a Jew or a Catholic or a Hindu perhaps you know the rabbi or the priest or whatever would have come in to talk to him and he would have felt - I would hope - very comforted by that. But for him death was going to mean nothingness and I don't quite know how you support people through that. 

Again that isn't what I think and we had several discussions and then we had very moving and tender father/daughter talks about dying. And I did try and put my point of view because it's the only one I've got to put in the hope that it would in some way comfort him. But I know that he was frightened of dying and I don't know how you help people who are frightened of dying and who don't believe there's any sort of afterlife. I don't know what you can do. But there certainly isn't anything coming in from outside if you like.
 

Some people described themselves as 'fatalists'. A man with prostate cancer said he didn't believe in life after death, but accepted the situation, and suggested that there was no point in 'moping'; that it was important to have good quality life for as long as possible. Another man, who believed that fate was somehow genetic, said that he must have served his purpose on earth.

Older people suspected that they found death easier to accept than younger people, whether or not they had religious beliefs. As one person in her seventies said, her views about death being natural and expected would have been very different in her 20's or 30's.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated May 2010.

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