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Ethics and Religion Talk: How to Counsel a Person Seeking Death, part 2

Margo H. asks, “If a parishioner wants to let go of living, how do you counsel them? Is there ever a case in your faith when you can support them spiritually in seeking death?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

We began addressing this topic in last week’s column. Here are three additional responses.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“My counsel varies with the particular circumstance. It’s crucial to ask the question ‘why?’ Is the reason one of mental health? Physical suffering? Social isolation? Acute crisis? 

“If the person is actively suicidal, it is my legal responsibility to deliver them to emergency care without judgement. If I am asked if God forgives a person who ends their life my response is never that God condemns such a person to hell, but rather that God weeps when a person takes their own life.

“In less emergent circumstances I invite the person to share the life events which have resulted in this feeling of hopelessness. I readily refer to professional counseling services in order to keep my relationship spiritual and pastoral. It is primarily among our 80 and 90 year olds whose bodies are frail and social interactions are minimizing and daily life brings little meaning that I hear a desire to ‘let go of living.’ Among some, it has been helpful to reflect on how the nature of “living” has changed over their years. Among others, it has been helpful to brainstorm what one or two things will help make their current situation more meaningful, that is, reexamining expectations. For some, investing in more social interaction produces more enjoyment and meaning in what might be an otherwise despondent circumstance. For some, exploring ways to help another, even one sharing their room in a nursing care facility will bring a renewed sense of life’s value.

“There are cases, primarily those at end-of-life, or when pain is intractable, that yes, I can support a person’s decision to accept death. I can affirm that such a desire is understandable without either assisting in bringing on death or granting permission to proceed. A person can ‘play God’ by seeking excessive medical care and artificial prolongation of life just as a person can ‘play God’ by actively seeking death. I am encouraged by the increased availability of palliative care which offers a balance between these two extremes. Because of how difficult such situations are when the arise as an emergency, it’s essential for all persons to prepare Advanced Directives. Spiritual values play a part in such documents. 

“A PC(USA) statement on End of Life decisions says that “Death is neither to be feared, denied or hidden. And “our lives are not our own to dispose of.’ Frail bodies as well as healthy ones deserve respect and compassionate care.”

Father Michael Nasser, who writes from an Eastern Christian perspective and is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church, responds:

“Jesus is understood by Orthodox Christians as achieving our salvation by conquering death, (this contrasts with the Western Christian understanding of salvation in Jesus as primarily being the one who pays the price for sin, but that’s for another topic). If death has been conquered, those who are in Christ need not fear it and so we see no need to artificially delay death. At the same time, being in Christ means to see one's life as being of service to the one we call Lord. As such, He should determine the time that we live this life, so we never act in a way that artificially hastens death. I would counsel a parishioner to put one's faith in Christ in whatever days we are given to live, even if those are difficult days. We usually make the most important spiritual gains when we suffer, and so we should accept our suffering in grace and humility, trusting in God Who knows our needs better than we do.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“I have never had a devotee from our temple approach me with such a concern. If I did, I’d have to discern quite a bit before offering any advice. Is this wish coming from the depths of severe depression? Excruciating physical pain? Has a prognosis of certain death been offered by a physician?  To be clear, while my counsel will be different in each case, I would never encourage someone to end their own life.

“The Hindu tradition does offer the option for the terminally ill to maintain a water fast until death comes. In this way we are not allowing any outside means to interfere in the process, but simply hastening the inevitable.

“While it has not been, to the best of my knowledge, debated among Hindu scholars, I believe that spies, soldiers, astronauts, etc. having access to suicide pills is appropriate. In the case of a captured spy, for example, the giving of secure information during torture that might mean the deaths of many innocents is a far worse consequence than whatever karmic cost might be incurred by the agent.”

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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