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Prayers for the Terminally Ill

Watching a terminally ill patient suffer is not easy. Emotionally, we just want them to get better, but we understand that medical options have been exhausted and nature is now taking its course.  What are the right prayers to say in such a circumstance? 

While there’s a spirited debate on this topic, Ematai generally advises people to pray “for mercy,” leaving up to God what that means. 

There are three general approaches on this dilemma:

1. Continue to pray for the ill person to have a complete and full recovery. 

We always have hope in the power of prayer, even when the laws of nature seem to say it’s impossible. After all, one never knows if the doctors might have erred in their prognosis or what the future may bring.  Moreover, the prayers may be effective in reducing the person’s suffering or at least keeping them alive for a bit longer.      

While such an approach might be intuitive, many critique it for two fundamental reasons:

  • Judaism doesn’t permit praying for a miracle.  Prayer typically doesn’t work against the laws of nature, and instructing people otherwise may only lead to greater disappointment if their entreaties aren’t answered.
  • It’s wrong to hope for a person to stay alive for a bit longer when it will only stretch out a painful dying experience.  We should only pray when it can extend living, but not to prolong a life of pain and suffering that only delays the inevitable.

This argument, which recognizes the value of quality of life, leads to a second approach:

2. When someone is both terminally ill and suffering, we should pray for their suffering to come to an end and their soul to return to their Maker. 

We must be honest with God and pray for the best thing for the patient, which in this case may be to die. While humans are forbidden to take actions that hasten someone’s death (see here), we can ask God to quickly remove their pain. In fact, one 18th-century scholar composed the following prayer: “Please God, with the power of Your great mercy, and with Your great benevolence, may it be Your will to take the soul of so-and-so out from its closed prison to relieve him from his suffering, and may his soul return to the God who gave it to Him.”

Some critique this approach for the following reasons:

  • Praying for someone to die may lead to neglect for their care and comfort.  This is particularly a concern for caregivers who might subconsciously want to relieve themselves of their burdensome filial responsibilities.
  • It’s not our role to “play God” and determine that someone should die. 
  • Emotionally speaking, it’s too difficult to pray in such a manner, especially since what we really want in our hearts is for the person to get better. 

In light of these concerns, many scholars adopt a third approach:

3. We should pray for God to “have mercy” on the sick person. 

What does that “mercy” entail in this case?  God will decide. We can’t decide their fate but know we want the best for them. We can genuinely beseech God with these words and understand that the complexity of the circumstance allows us to say no more. 

While all three approaches are well-grounded in Jewish thought, our experience indicates that this third approach works best for those struggling with the conflicting emotions of watching someone suffer in the dying process. 

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