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Diversity of Patients’ Beliefs about the Soul after Death and Their Importance in End-of-Life Care

Henry S. Perkins, MD, Josie D. Cortez, MA, Helen P. Hazuda, PhD
Volume: 105 Issue: 5 May, 2012

Abstract:

Background: Because beliefs about the soul after death affect the dying experience, patients and survivors may want to discuss those beliefs with their healthcare provider; however, almost no medical research describes such beliefs, leaving healthcare professionals ill prepared to respond. This exploratory study begins the descriptive process.


Methods: Assuming that culture is key, we asked older adult Mexican American (MA), European American (EA), and African American (AA) inpatients their beliefs about whether the soul lives on after physical death; if so, where; and what the “afterlife” is like.


Results: Some beliefs varied little across the sample. For example, most participants said that the soul lives on after physical death, leaves the body immediately at death, and eventually reaches heaven. Many participants also said death ends physical suffering; however, other beliefs varied distinctly by ethnic group or sex. More AAs than MAs or EAs said that they believed that the soul after physical death exists in the world (57% vs 35% and 33%) or interacts with the living (43% vs 31% and 28%). Furthermore, in every ethnic group more women than men said they believed that the soul exists in the world (42% vs 29% for MAs, 45% vs 14% for EAs, and 71% vs 43% for AAs).


Conclusions: As death nears, patients or survivors may want to discuss beliefs about the soul after death with their healthcare provider. This preliminary study characterizes some of those beliefs. By suggesting questions to ask and responses to give, the study provides healthcare professionals a supportive, knowledgeable way to participate in such discussions.

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