Finding Hope in Something Hopeless

I am occasionally asked to talk with Final Exit Network clients or family members who have questions about religion or spirituality. They sometimes seek help in coming to terms with their faith tradition’s opposition to self-deliverance. Usually, clients have already reconciled the apparent conflict for themselves, but a family member may be struggling to understand the client’s decision and its consequences.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a relatively young man who was planning his exit and was concerned for his mother. She was perhaps more religious than he but was supportive of his decision and planned to be at his side every step of the way. A few months later, she called me to express her gratitude and also to ask me a question about something her son had said before his exit. He told her that planning his own exit gave him hope. That didn’t make sense to her because the whole reason for his self-deliverance was that there was no hope of recovering from his illness. What “hope” was he talking about?

Hope is defined on Dictionary.com as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had.” Most people who contact FEN would welcome a spontaneous recovery from their illness, but that’s usually not what they’re hoping for when they talk to me. Their hope may have a religious aspect, such as the hope of an afterlife of some kind. There may be a certain amount of hope in knowing that the pain will end, or the anticipated pain will never happen, although pain relief is rarely the main reason they choose self-deliverance.

Much of life seems beyond our control, even when we are healthy. When facing an intolerable quality of life, choosing the time and manner of death gives us a sense of control when so many things seem beyond our control. That sense of control is the essence of hope.

When I was a hospice chaplain, I often advised my patients to plan their own funerals as a gift to their families. That advice was intended to prevent family members from fighting about “what Dad would have wanted.” It turned out that planning their own funerals also gave the patients a renewed sense of purpose, which made their last days more enjoyable for everyone involved. Ironically, preparing for their deaths gave them a reason to live, even in their last days. They wouldn’t live longer, but they could live more intentionally, and that mattered.

The young man’s mother breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “That makes sense,” she said. “And it sounds like him. The doctors even used that word – they said his condition was hopeless. But they didn’t know my son. I can see that by planning everything about his last days he had a sense of purpose. He found hope in something hopeless.”

Kevin Bradley serves Final Exit Network as a speaker, board member, and exit guide. He is a certified stress management counselor and an ordained minister with experience as a hospice and hospital chaplain.