Science vs. Religion: When a Child Dies, Which Provides More Comfort?

By Jodee Redmond, In the Cloud Copy

The work of a pediatric oncologist isn’t for the faint of heart. All their patients are children, and the outcome isn’t always good. Someone going into this branch of medicine must be prepared for the fact that their patients will often die despite their best efforts and everything that science can currently provide as far as treatment.

It is a job where the doctor is required to become reconciled to their faith. No one wants to see a child suffer, much less die, and it takes someone very special to work in an environment where they are exposed to a steady diet of it. Anyone who works in pediatric oncology has asked themselves, if there is a Higher Power, why would that entity allow children to suffer and die of cancer?

Certainly, the patients’ families ask that question as they are called to walk that road with their child. This a question that they struggle with but rarely end up remaining in the middle on.

Physician Holds Faith in Science; Family Finds Comfort in Religion

Dr. Asher Marks wrote that shortly before COVID-19 engulfed the Eastern region of the United States, he had the “privilege” of witnessing the death of one of his patients in the hospital. The patient had been diagnosed with an inoperable, cancerous brain tumor and she had been given a prognosis of nine months to live when she was diagnosed.

The patient had lived longer than the doctors had expected and survived 18 months from her initial diagnosis. She had undergone more than one experimental treatment before cancer eventually took her life. Her Irish Catholic family found strength and courage in their religious faith as they accepted the loss that was coming.

Dr. Marks held onto his faith in science. He hoped and believed that somehow one of the trials would make a difference to his patient.

Funerals via Zoom Call Lack Personal Element

When the patient’s funeral is held, only the immediate family and the religious leaders are allowed to gather around the coffin. The extended family, the doctors who cared for this young patient, and members of the community who knew her can only participate virtually.

There is a saying that grief shared is grief divided; however, this element is missing from the young patient’s final arrangements. The family doesn’t have the support (literally) from extended family members and friends from hugs and closeness as they say goodbye to their loved one.

Sitting at home in front of a computer screen is not the same as actually attending the visitation, the funeral service, or the burial. Instead, it just seems cold and sterile.

The family in this case still took comfort in their faith and the Mass. The rituals around saying a final goodbye to someone who has died helped them in their grief. In contrast, as Dr. Marks describes it, his faith in science suffered when his patient died. It did not have as much to offer the family in their time of need.

Read more about Dr. Marks’ experience at Scientific American.

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