Friday, October 23, 2015 9:38 PM

Responding to a terminal diagnosis

A terminal diagnosis does not have to be the end of joy and contentment. I was reminded of this on two different days last week when I visited with two men who had been given a terminal diagnosis.  One was a devout Catholic family man and the other man said he had been exposed negatively to religion as a child so he was never interested in organized religion.

Both of these two men expressed some sadness and even shed some tears as our conversations progressed. However, their ultimate response to their terminal diagnosis was not a hopeless and desperate exclamation of anger or sorrow. These two men had found an inner peace that gave them the strength to face their current situation with courage, humbleness and even with joy.

The first man was a Hispanic who was married and had children and grandchildren. As he spoke with me in my chaplain role he did a quick overview of his life’s achievements. He also acknowledged that his faith in God had been a source of strength and comfort through many previous struggles. He said his faith was strengthening him at this time because it reassured him of where he was going after death. Yes, of course, he lamented leaving his wife and children. He lamented not being there to see his grandchildren grow up. He said, “I know that they will be okay because God will continue to watch over them.”- This patient stated that even though he accepted the reality of his diagnosis he was not going to let it rob him of his faith and his peace.

The second man was an Anglo family man who also lamented his situation. He readily acknowledged his ignorance of the Bible because he did not read it. He spoke briefly about his family in a loving and caring way. However, he was upbeat and almost cheerful as he spoke about a new awareness of his spirituality. He was humorous in his comments and had a contagious spirit of laughter. He made the statement that he accepted the reality of his diagnosis, but he was not going to let it rob him of his joy and peace. It appeared that for this patient, his terminal diagnosis had given him a new lease on really living life for as long as he still had some life to live.

You never know how someone is going to respond to a terminal diagnosis until you engage with them in open and honest dialogue free from your own pre-conceived ideas. A terminal diagnosis may mean the end of a lot of things to some people, but there is still much living to be done before the end comes. Human beings give meaning to their life experiences and this is especially true when they receive a terminal diagnosis from a doctor. This experience and the meaning we give to it can be a turning point in life.

I’ve found from my experiences as chaplain that the inner resources that feed a person’s resilience can vary as much as the uniqueness of each person. I’ve realized through these conversations with our patients that it’s important to allow time and space for a patient to connect with their inner source of strength.  Care enough to listen to them.  Care enough to affirm their humanness. Care enough to allow the patient to decide what meaning they will make of their terminal diagnosis. And it’s important to allow them the space and the time to hold on to whatever joy and peace they can.

Rev. Grimaldo Enriquez, Chaplain, Community Regional Medical Center