Personhood in Terminal Illness

Dr. Saul Ebema

Personhood is defined as, being a subject with say over one’s body, emotions, decisions, and life goals. For many, it includes one’s role or relationships in a family or community.

In the face of multiple losses and increased dependence on others for basic needs, someone who is terminally ill may feel as if he/she is not the same person. Sometimes that person feels as if he/she is not a person at all, but just a sick body.

Severe threats to personhood include,

  • Loss of value in life
  • Loss of purpose
  • Loss of identity and occasionally, this threat to identity may motivate suicidal ideation

Hospice chaplains as spiritual care givers can help a lot in situations like this because spiritual care helps to sustain someone’s personhood. It aims to sustain one’s sense of being a person with value, dignity, and worth.

These simple but often overlooked strategies may be employed to help sustain the patient’s sense of personhood:

  • Talk to the ill person rather than about them in their presence, even if they are not capable of complete understanding
  • Ask persons how they are doing or feeling before focusing on specific medical problems
  • Explore what it is that helps that person feel like a human being rather than just a“case” or “patient”
  • Acknowledge that this person is someone special, affirmation goes a long way in helping someone sustain personhood.
  • Offer choices and help persons identify areas where they can have some say to compensate for the tremendous loss of control and independence that accompanies a progressive terminal illness

Hospice Chaplaincy is committed to promoting excellence in spiritual care at the end of life. Our mission is to advance research initiatives that promote a better understanding of the psychosocial and psycho-spiritual aspects of end of life care. We are dedicated to providing patient advocacy, support and education services to individuals, clergy and medical professionals resulting in improvements in providing quality spiritual care at the end of life.

1 comment on “Personhood in Terminal Illness

  1. Mark Powell

    Wonderfully written.


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