More and more of our parents are faced with the possibility of having to terminate the life of their loved one who was born mentally challenged.  Medical professionals have found that putting a person into a medicinal coma helps to make the patient easier to handle and treat.  It also facilitates healing and the risk of infection.  However, with these heart and breathing devices in place, you can keep the body of a person alive for an indefinate amount of time, long after the brain has died. 

Helping the family of a person who is developmentally disabled make life terminating decisions may become part of what is expected from you as the pastor or spiritual leader of the person who is critically ill.  There are several precautions of which you should be aware.

  1. The decision to terminate the life of a member is not and should not be yours to make
  2. You should be prepared mentally and professionally to help the guide the family to make a decision that will be best for them and the person who may be facing death.
  3. The professional guidance you will need is readily available to you. This type of information is available through the hospital and from a doctor.  You can also search the Internet to find information.  Avoid any site that may encourage you to make that decision for the family.
  4. Prayer and study of the Scriptures will help prepare yourself mentally for any guidance that you are asked to give.
  5. Steer away from anything other than asking pointed and helpful questions.  “What will be her quality of life, if she is allowed to continue to breathe?”  is an example.
  6. Questions of this nature will allow the family to walk down paths that they may feel are inappropriate for them to explore.
  7. Give the parents/family permission to speak the unspeakable.  Again, a pointed question coming from you will help them to talk openly about the consequences of the decision they are asked to make.
  8. Each time you walk into a hospital room where a person is attached to lifegiving equipment, come armed with questions that should be asked. 
  9. Understand that you may not be asked to become a part of this conversation; but if you are, you should be prepared to guide the discussion into fruitful areas.
  10. Do not enter this area of discussion unless you are given permission from the family.  If you begin to ask probing questions and the family has not invited you into this extremely private area, you are opening doors that are not yours to open.
  11. If the family desires for you to walk along side of them, they will let you know.  “What should we do?”  will probably the the first question you are asked.
  12. Avoid this question like the plague by answering it with pointed questions.  “What do you believe will be best for him?”  “Does he have a living will?”  “What do you believe would be the best thing to do?”  These are questions that will open the conversation and allow them to explore freely the possibilities.

This is a horrible time in the life of a family.  Either way the family decides, there will be future second guessing and prolonged self-examination.  However, most people know in their gut what they must do.  They only need someone who will facilitate giving themselves permission to do the right thing.  Your place is not to make the decision but to help the family find out what they already know they must do.