Faith at the end of life

Please be aware - this information is for healthcare professionals

Some people with a terminal illness find that having a religious belief system or philosophy makes it easier for them to cope with their emotions. Other people start to question their beliefs following their diagnosis, wondering what the meaning of life is.

Faith can be a very important part of who a person is . As a health and social care professional, it’s very important that you address any religious needs to ensure that you are providing effective person-centred care as your patient approaches the end of their life.

If the patient does not follow a faith or religion it is equally important to respect their beliefs and wishes. 

What is the difference between faith, religion and spirituality?

Spirituality is a broad term relating to our thoughts and feelings about our own being and purpose, which may be based more on individual philosophies than established faiths.  Faith and religion refers more specifically to particular beliefs, rituals and practices. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are examples of religions.

How can I know what to do for my patient?

You can help to make death a more peaceful, dignified experience by supporting your patient’s faith and beliefs at the end of their life. We live in an increasingly diverse community, and people of different faiths have different needs and expectations, so it’s important not to make assumptions. The patient and their family may be happy to share knowledge of their faith with you, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Queenscourt Hospice has an excellent resource   that outlines the religious needs of many different faiths, and it includes information on death and dying.  If you need further advice, the local hospital, hospice and palliative care team may have a chaplaincy service.

What do I need to know?

Many faiths have specific rites around death and dying. Cultural traditions may also be very important at this time. Rituals and traditions may apply to:

  • how and when death may be discussed
  • spiritual preparation for death, through rituals, readings, prayers, chanting, lighting candles and incense or music
  • the use of pain relief
  • family visits and gathering by the bedside
  • washing and laying out the body, including who may do it and how it is done
  • funerals, burial and cremation
  • mourning practices.

The more you know in advance, the better you can support the patient and their family at critical times.

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Points to remember

  • Faith can be a very important issue around the time of death.
  • Not everyone follows a faith or religion. Those who follow a non-religious set of beliefs deserve respect too. Non-religious services are available, for example through the British Humanist Association.
  • It is important to be respectful of others’ beliefs, even if they contradict yours. As a professional, it’s not appropriate to force your own beliefs on the patient or their loved ones.
  • Preparation is the key, so read and learn what you can. Ask the family and the chaplaincy service if you need more information. This way, you will have a better understanding of the patient’s needs and those of their loved ones. 

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