Religious Experiences of Older People Receiving Palliative Care at Home
Religiosity of Older People
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Ethical Procedure
2.2. Data Collection
3.1. Relationality in Religious Experience
Aino agreed and the sisters led the interviewers to understand that their religious upbringing was especially their mother’s legacy. Singing together formed an important channel to express their common conviction. Decades after gathering to sing in their childhood, the sisters sang together at home. Aune shared similar thoughts about how her religious community provided her with support in life changes during her youth. Through her community, Aune found religious belonging and comfort. In the hardships of life, the community provided shelter and direction. Further, Aune’s father had an important role in her religious formation; she told us with strong emotions about how her father was happy to see her “on that road” of believers. These expressions can be interpreted to suggest that religious experiences from their childhood and youth provided roots for religious experiences in later life. Comfort and belonging discovered in early religious experiences remained a lived reality for Aune, Aino, and Arja.When we were little, our mom used to gather us around the table and together we sang psalms and spiritual songs every Saturday… In those days, we sang a lot. It is really a good thing that sometimes we still sing together.
This extract shows relationality from two aspects. First, the teacher’s strictness aroused strong resistance. Second, Henrik shared his thoughts with his friends. The impact of the teacher and rebellion toward his teacher’s beliefs was evident, but he also shared, with a neutral tone: “I wasn’t any habitual believer in my youth either. But at that time, in youth, we [with the family] went to church at Christmas together and it did not feel bad.” The biographical viewpoint leads us to interpret that religiousness has never been simple for Henrik. He expressed his current state of belief saying: “I am mild, mild—not a devoted believer—yet, there is a small sprout in that direction.” It seems that Henrik was struggling to discover his true and balanced attitude toward his conviction. Religiousness is an ongoing process, as seen in Henrik’s narration.I was very much against religion during my school years. Our teacher of religion in lyceum was very strict and harsh. He/she talked so much rubbish that we boys did not accept that. Sometimes we even played some practical jokes and quite soon after finishing my matriculation examination, I resigned [from the church].
In these few words, religious experience was described in a very condensed manner. Through communion, they found comfort and balance in their daily life; furthermore, communion provided hope for eternal life. Aino and her sister were recruited via the snowball method; the diaconia worker asked them to join our study. This interview was conducted by the two theologians of our team (the first and second author of this paper). This might have affected how Aino and Arja stressed the diaconia worker’s visits and partly took a shared understanding of religiousness for granted. Still, the diaconia worker’s regular visits were clearly important to these women and they would have likely emphasized them to other interviewees.Arja: It [communion] brings restfulness.Aino: [It means that] Jesus has died for me.
3.2. Reality of Religious Experience
Aune’s words reflect how her personal belief provided her with the basic trust to live. For her, strong religious guidance is lived in everyday life as her positive attitude grows from her faith. Amid her multitude of health problems, she found special comfort in the power of healing prayer: “When the headaches come, it is so horrible. But then I put my hands there [touching her head where the ache often emerges] and begin to pray and it stops.” Aune shared this story of how her headaches have been healed by prayer a couple of times in her interviews with amazement and a smile on her face. For Aune, prayer was a significant route to God, and through it, God acted in her life. She shared other occasions in her life that reflected this.I trust that the one who once has taken me under his care, will take care of me until the end. That is the best. When I have inner peace and tranquility, I have strength to smile.
Even at the stage in her life when Aino was not able to leave home, religious rituals played an important role: reading the bible and spiritual literature was part of her daily life. Regular visits from the diaconia worker bringing holy communion were also important to her, as we have seen. Singing psalms now and then with her sisters was part of their religious activities. Religious experiences are often shared, which gives them a relational aspect.Aino: Well, from faith [I find meaning and joy into my life].Arja: Yes, from her youth she has been on the side of faith.Aino: I have been [in faith] ever since my youth.
Maria continued to explain her ideas with a long speech on the importance of Christianity in Finnish culture and history. For her, the ECLF seemed to be an important institution that brought literary and moral teachings into the country; the church needed to continue to function even though Maria did not feel that the teachings connected with this were meaningful for her.I have this type of god, who is… I do not… Children are baptized, we have been married in the church… God is like a gray-haired old man who sits up there… This is just like a fairy tale but when there is trouble, I fold my hands in the evening and ask for something… I am not at all… I am not an atheist but God is like that. God does exist.
Tapio’s words reflected that his connection through prayer was strong once. In nature, he found a connection to God and longed for this at the time of the interview. It could be interpreted that this one-time touch through prayer awoke two conflicting ideas. On the one hand, Tapio knew that he had had this fulfilling connection with God and it brought him hope that this connection would be possible again. On the other hand, the experience reminded him that his current prayer life was not fulfilling. In the interview, he said that “I want to humble myself” and seemed to refer to a wish to surrender to God’s comfort and care, but did not know how to do this. In his search for peace of mind, Tapio had over 50 meetings with a psychologist. He framed the psychologist as “God’s gift,” as for him, these meetings were like “a medication that has effect for three days.” Yet, the interviewers had the impression that religious struggles are hardly discussed in these meetings.I appreciate church very much. We belong to the church and we will belong to the church for all of our lives… I appreciate the word of the Bible and I’ve been trying to pray. But I just can’t find [the connection]. I had a moment... [at his sister’s summer cottage], when sitting there at the waterfront alone I found a sort of connection. I looked over the lake and tried to pray and wondered. That is the only time [when the connection was formed], that was a good experience. Therefore, it makes me sad that how come I haven’t been able to reach that for a second time? I’ve been trying to.
It seems that Henrik had difficulties verbalizing his reasons for rejoining the ELCF; yet, he made a clear connection between membership of the church and Hell. It remained unclear whether he was really afraid of going to Hell as he soon continued: “well I don’t believe in that kind of dualism,” and explained that in his thoughts, the afterlife was more like the “intermediate state expressed by Dante.” As Dante’s Divina commedia narrates a journey through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven, it seems that somehow Henrik believed that people are punished for their deeds; the afterlife is more than just Hell and Heaven. Yet, Henrik found that church membership might provide a safety net in death. Membership is a counterforce to his glimpses of fear of Hell that could provide him with eternal life without punishment. From the perspective of religious seeking, Henrik seems to seek peace of mind and security through his religious commitment. Some other participants also found it important to discuss the afterlife, as the next section will show.For decades, I was a pagan. In the last stage of life, for some reason, I converted or went back to the church membership… I thought, am I so poor… so if I were a member of the church, I wouldn’t go to Hell.
3.3. Experience of Encountering Mortality
3.3.1. Plans for Dying Alleviate the Emotional Pain of Death
Henrik used the concept of grief work during his process of getting ready for death. Part of this process has been talking frequently with his wife to prepare her for bereavement. Among our participants, Henrik was in many ways an exception in his preparedness to talk about death during the interview.I have done my own personal grief work. I have had long talks with my wife and she is not at all shocked at these discussions, she has seen so much death in her life. No, there should not be any surprises.
Henrik had rejoined the ELCF in adulthood but reflected on his years without religious affiliation during which he was thinking what it would mean not to be getting, as he calls it, a “proper funeral” officiated by a Lutheran pastor. This idea that a pastor makes a proper funeral is very common in Finland. One reason might be that humanist funerals are not yet common in Finland, and apart from other Christian pastors and imams who serve the Muslim community, there are not many other people qualified to officiate at funerals (see (Butters 2017)).My next visit to the church might be my own funeral. They have never been really important to me. But the family wants to organize a proper funeral and we have to get somebody there to officiate at the funeral service. And I have a place ready in the urn cemetery in which I will be next to my parents. But also those who do not belong to the church will nowadays get there.
3.3.2. Beliefs about the Afterlife and Understandings of Continuing Bonds
The above discussion shows that neither of them had a clear belief about the afterlife but they had agreed to rely on an understanding of a continuing bond between them even after Tapio dies. However, they could not explain where Tapio would be and how his wife could keep in touch with him. This thought that Tapio would not completely disappear brought them consolation in distress and showed how their spousal relationship was central for this couple. Since they did not have children, Tapio could not rely on them to be with Leena after his death, but instead imagined continuing their relationship. They did not know whether the bond would be concrete or only in memories, but the idea of having a bond brought them hope, even though the “biggest sorrow in this whole process and in approaching death is how Leena will cope.”Tapio: The view of death and dying has been difficult for me to grasp. I am not bitter but the thing that I grieve the most is that the unity of two of us will be disrupted and I worry how the other one will be able to cope. I have started from a point of view that life will be finished and there is nothing after it.Leena: But we have agreed that you will be with me whole the time.Tapio: Yes, this is how we have agreed.Leena: I just have to believe that you are somewhere.Tapio: I will try to be somewhere.
Maria did not group herself among the good people who go to Heaven. During her interview, she mainly showed strong self-confidence and seemed proud of herself and the life she had lived. Maria returned to the idea of life after death in her interview and explained: “Heaven would [not] be a place which helps me while I die.” Maria did not explain where she goes when life ends, nor did she talk of a reunion with her late husband. It seems that the afterlife was such a big mystery for her that she did not know how to think about it; it certainly was not central to her spirituality.I mean that I might be hard but I do not say that the Creator invites me with these good people into Heaven. This might be quite cruel talk but this is how it is. For some others, it is easier to think that Jesus brings you to the Heaven, invites all. Today many people are cremated. This suits me, my ashes could be distributed in nature as well. I think that we join the natural cycle without denying that the Lutheran religion exists and God and Jesus exist and everything.
Aino shared Aune’s strong faith: “I have been many times on the border [of life and death]. But I do not get away [from this life].” Aino expressed her wish to die with even stronger words in the phone call a week after her interview. During the intervening week, Aino had been hospitalized because of very poor health and still felt very weak when she discussed her situation on the phone. For Aino, death seemed like a possibility of letting go and getting away from the suffering that she experienced in this world. Aino had been close to death frequently and she did not fear it.Then they asked if I am afraid. I responded, I do not have fear. I am thanking God that I have survived without it. I have peace inside. I do not live with fear.
Conflicts of Interest
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|Pseudonym||Age||Health Condition||Religious Affiliation|
|Aino (female), interviewed with her sister Arja||74, 79||Lung stenosis, palliative care decision||Active member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF)|
|Aleksi (male), interviewed with his wife, Reetta||78, 82||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and colon cancer, palliative care decision||Passive member of the ELCF, said that religion is not important|
|Anja (female)||77||Various long-term illnesses, no palliative care decision||Member of the ELCF|
|Aune (female)||85||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, palliative care decision||Active member and former employee of a minority Protestant community (within the ELCF)|
|Henrik (male)||70||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bowel cancer.||Rejoined the ELCF as an older adult|
|Juhani (male)||76||Bowel cancer, recent palliative care decision, life expectancy: 2 months||Not a member of the ELCF|
|Maili (female)||83||Memory issues, no other physical illnesses, no palliative care decision||Used to be an active member of the ELCF|
|Maria (female)||81||Was given a palliative care decision two years ago for lung cancer but the cancer had not progressed as fast as expected||Passive member of the ELCF|
|Olli (male), interviewed with his wife, Marja||85, 86||Stenosis in lungs, urological cancer, palliative care decision was a few months prior||Passive member of the ELCF, did not talk about his religiosity|
|Reijo (male), interviewed with his wife, Rebecca||70, 63||Lung cancer, additionally diabetes and heart problems, palliative care decision was a few months prior; Reijo died a week after the interview||Passive member of the ELCF, did not discuss religion explicitly|
|Tapio (male), interviewed with his wife, Leena||67, 61||Pancreatic cancer, diagnosed 18 months ago, experimental treatment ended recently||Passive member of the ELCF|
|Tyyne (female)||79||Various long-term illnesses, no palliative care decision||Active member of the ELCF|
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Saarelainen, S.-M.; Vähäkangas, A.; Anttonen, M.S. Religious Experiences of Older People Receiving Palliative Care at Home. Religions 2020, 11, 336. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11070336
Saarelainen S-M, Vähäkangas A, Anttonen MS. Religious Experiences of Older People Receiving Palliative Care at Home. Religions. 2020; 11(7):336. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11070336Chicago/Turabian Style
Saarelainen, Suvi-Maria, Auli Vähäkangas, and Mirja Sisko Anttonen. 2020. "Religious Experiences of Older People Receiving Palliative Care at Home" Religions 11, no. 7: 336. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11070336