Spirituality & Caring for the Dying


“Death is not the opposite of life. Death is the opposite of birth. Life is the continuum of birth and death.” — Deepak Chopra

Many people have done little work to prepare for death on a psychological, spiritual, and social level. Why do we fear death so much? How can spiritual practices prepare us and aid us in the dying process? These are profound questions that are important for us to consider for ourselves and our loved ones.

According to Murray, Kendall, Boyd, Worth, and Benton (2004), “Spiritual needs are the needs and expectations which humans have to find meaning, purpose and value in their life. Such needs can be specifically religious, but even people who have no religious faith or are not members of organized religion have belief systems that give their lives meaning and purpose” (p. 40). Defining spirituality and spiritual needs can be difficult because each human being has their definition. Edwards, Pang, Shiu, and Chan (2010) add, “A crucial question is whether or not patients themselves recognize the concept of spirituality as defined by healthcare professionals. Patients may not understand the term ‘spirituality.’ What professionals assume to be spiritual care might not correspond with patients’ understandings and needs” (p. 24). There are several barriers to spiritual care such as personal, cultural, institutional, and educational needs of professionals.

What are some of the spiritual needs of patients? The main spiritual needs are 1. The need for closure (finish business and reconciliation). 2. The need for involvement and control over daily activities. 3. To remain involved with family and in decisions about their lives. And 4. Need to for a positive outlook (happy thoughts, to see the smiles of others, humor, and laughter).

My grandmother died this past July. She was 94 years old. I knew that she was dying, but I did not go to her bedside to say, “Good-bye.” Now I regret not going to see her. I was not there but I know my grandma loves me, and I love her – this is all that matters.

grm theresa Grandma Theresa

I grew up in Catholic religion, but now I am a Buddhist. I consider myself a Catholic Buddhist – if there is such a thing! In the Buddhist tradition, according to Hawter (1995), “It is emphasized strongly that the time to prepare for death is now, because if we develop and gain control over our mind now and create many positive causes we will have a calm and controlled mind at the time of death and be free of fear” (p. 3). The way to a calm and controlled mind is through meditation. Meditation trains the mind like running trains the body. Also, in the Buddhist tradition, it is important to die with a calm and peaceful mind.

How can spiritual practices aid the patient in the dying process according to the Buddhist tradition? If the patient is conscious, then he or she can do the practices with his or her family, minister, or spiritual counselor. If the patient is unconscious, then the family/minister/spiritual counselor will recite prayers or mantras into his or her ear. Hearing is the last sense to be lost. It is important to do whatever reminds the patient of his or her spiritual practice. It is beneficial to have spiritual objects around the dying patient (for example an altar, a rosary, photos of the spiritual teacher). Playing spiritual music, burning incense, and singing songs can also help calm the patient.

For patients that are in advanced illness but are still conscious benefit from simple meditation techniques and visualizations. Also, a gentle massage, Reiki, aromatherapy, or reflexology can be soothing and stress-relieving. Again, it’s important to help the patient have a peaceful mind as they approach death.

We do not need to fear death. Actually, according to Reagan (2013), “We are discovering that simply contemplating death can make us happier, healthier, and better citizens…as we confront our mortality, we are midwifing the difficult birth of a multidimensional transformation – physical, spiritual, psychological, social, and ecological” (p. 38).

Namaste, world.



Edwards, A., Pang, N., Shiu, V., & Chan, C. (2010, winter). The understanding of spirituality and the potential role of spiritual care in end-of-life palliative care: a meta-study of qualitative research. Palliative Medicine, 24(8), 753-770

Hawter, P. (1995, August). The spiritual needs of the dying: a buddhist perspective. Retrieved from: http://www.buddhanet.net/spirit_d.htm

Murray, S., Kendall, M., Boyd, K., Worth, A., & Benton, T. (2004, January). Exploring the spiritual needs of people dying of lung cancer or heart failure: a prospective qualitative interview study of patients and their careers. Palliative Medicine, 18(1), 39-44

Reagan, L. (2013, winter). Death makes life possible: bridging consciousness, science, and spirit. LILIPOH, 18(70), 36-40

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