Religion has a positive impact on end-of-life experiences

Even terminally ill patients can feel that their quality of life is high. Achieving the experience of meaningful life is the result of a spiritual process, suggests a recent doctoral dissertation.

Matti-Pekka Virtaniemi, who will defend his doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Theology on 25 August 2017, has studied the existential process of people diagnosed with ALS, the changes to their living conditions and the attitudes to these changes.

ALS is an incurable progressive neurological disease that destroys the motor functions and leads to death within a few years.

“In my research, I’m interested in ways we can create and find meaning and meaningfulness in life in a life-threatening situation. I also study how a spiritual dimension influences the experience of meaningfulness in life,” Virtaniemi explains.

Six ALS patients were interviewed for his dissertation, each of them three times over the course of one year.

The results were partially unexpected.

“The perceived quality of life among many ALS patients remains high even though their physical state declines,” says Virtaniemi.

Three out of four patient narratives mention religious spirituality as a positive factor in the experience of meaningfulness in life.

“The ultimate concerns in life may change and become less frightening. However, they remain active issues for as long as there is life. In addition, the sources of meaning in life can change,” says the doctoral candidate.

The ultimate existential concerns listed by the interviewees included fear of the inevitable future and death, the pain of respiratory difficulties, the choice of whether to use a permanent ventilator which can prolong life, as well as loss of independence.

Sources of meaning in life included close relationships, work, helping others, nature, life itself, personal growth, hope and a connection to the God.

Licentiate of Theology Matti-Pekka Virtaniemi will defend his doctoral dissertation entitled The Challenge of the Last Stage of Life: The Existential Process of an ALS Patient and Religious Spirituality at 12.15 on 25 August 2017 at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology.

The public defence will take place in the University’s Main Building, Auditorium XII, Fabianinkatu 33.

The opponent will be Docent Tuija Hovi from the University of Turku, and the custos will be Professor Auli Vähäkangas from the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Theology.

The dissertation can be accessed through the e-thesis service.