When people do think about their dying, it is often the seen with family surrounding the bed and saying goodbyes. Unfortunately, many deaths do not end up this way, either because of the suddenness of death, the loss of self due to disease or because the person is in the hospital with countless interruptions by staff (which is necessary, maybe not at the frequency it happens, but it is part of finding oneself in a hospital setting). In this post here, the author presents a description of being with a family during a peaceful death of a loved one. I can attest to what she describes, for when people confront a loved one actively dying, especially if the one dying appears comfortable and at peace, they too will often be able to be at peace. While loss is never painless, and will always leave people with questions of what ifs, comfort care can alleviate much of the stress if the care is done well.
Just before New Years, I found myself helping a family whose loved one was dying. As a chaplain in a hospital, I never know whether a family will “allow” me (or any other chaplain) “in” at the time that is most painful for them. Amazingly, most families welcome a professional chaplain into the “holy ground” of those who are dying. I think that they somehow know that we are there not to convert or judge, but to help them with the dying process.
To sit with them, for however long is necessary, so that they can be supported as their loved one is dying. As a society, we are not taught this in school, nor does it come easily. We don’t know how to act or what to do or how to be with someone who is dying (especially once death moved out of our homes and into hospitals). As a professional chaplain, I can help them and be a reminding “presence” that they and their loved one are not alone. God is also present.
Decisions that are made when someone is nearing the end of their life are often fraught with second-guessing: Did we make the right decision? Will it make a difference? Will it give our loved one more time? Will it ease any physical pain the patient might be experiencing? And what about the pain? If we ask for more morphine, will we be hastening his death?
Second-guessing decisions that are made with the knowledge one has at the time the decision is made can be fraught with what ifs. Looking back with knowledge gained after a decision has been made can only cause pain and more what ifs. We make decisions with the knowledge that we have at the time we make that decision and somehow, we have to accept those decisions that are made and not regret them … because we made them based on what we knew at the time — not 24 or 48 hours or days or weeks later.
Jesse was a lucky man in so many ways. But in no way greater than as he lay dying. His wife, Anna, and his daughter Terry and son David (not their real names) did not leave his side. They created a holy space for him in his dying. They sang to him, talked to him, held him, cried over him, caressed him and loved him in a way that can only be described as God’s Holy Ground.
They also gave him the greatest gift they could have given him at that time — the gift of letting him go. While it was so hard for each of them, they let Jesse know that they were going to be OK. And, that while they would miss him and it would be a very difficult time for them, they wanted him to go in peace, knowing that those he loved most dearly were going to be OK. They also gave him another gift — Jesse didn’t want to give up hope and so his family kept that hope alive with him.
Watching this selfless act of loving on their part gave me a keen insight into who Jesse was and his life with Anna and their kids. The love that Jesse and Anna shared was passed on to their children, who I believe are now passing that kind of love onto their children … so the impact that Jesse had on this world will go on for generations.
My prayer for this family was that, as they looked back on the last weeks of Jesse’s life, they would find, along with the pain of him not being here, the wonderful memories of their last Thanksgiving and Christmas together as a family, as spouses and grandchildren joined in filling Jesse’s and Anna’s home with love. I also prayed that they would also be able to recognize the risen Lord who traveled with them on this journey and has now said to Jesse, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Would that we could all experience such a peace-filled death. As his daughter commented to me in a recent email exchange, “The moment of his death was as beautiful as it was painful.” So, while the pain of his death was and is still present, the cut is “clean,” as the late, Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin said from the pulpit of The Riverside Church in his first sermon following the unexpected death of his 24-year-old son, Alex. Dr. Coffin said, “Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean.”
Would that we could all make that claim. Would that we could live our lives in such a way as to ensure that all of our relationships are “clean,” because death can arrive at any time. Are you ready for that time?