Closing in on death
Honesty, presence aid in letting go of life to behold glorious other one
A young woman walked into the church where Richard Lischer was serving. With an aggressive sort of confidence, this guest asked him what the church had to offer her. He quickly recited the more impressive features of the facility and program life.
Then, as Lischer describes in his newest book, Stations of the Heart(Knopf, 2013), the woman made a startling comment. “Well, that’s nice, but I’m looking for someone to help me die. Do you think your church is up to that? And what about you?” she probed further. “Is that something you could do?” The young pastor was momentarily befuddled.
There is no entity better equipped to help a person learn how to die than the church. As it turns out, not many congregations perform too well in this regard. Instead of helping people build a practical faith that will assist them in dealing graciously with different aspects of dying, faith communities often talk around the subject. They give people Bible verses to memorize for occasions when anxiety over the dying process runs wild. It’s a strategy not unlike a physician who writes a just-in-case Xanax prescription for that patient who may need tension relief someday.
The kind of practical faith of which I am speaking involves more than knowing a few life-giving passages of Scripture. It happens to be a variety of faith one cannot fashion in an instant, much less in the final days of life. Forming a workable faith of substance takes a lifetime of nurture and discipline, or at least as many seasons as one is granted between the day of baptism and that last exhalation of breath.
Telltale signs emerge, even among lifelong believers, when that God-given “peace that surpasses all human understanding” is absent within. The offspring of a dying parent may whisper to the visiting hospice nurse, “Don’t tell him you are from hospice. That will upset him. He’ll freak out or just plain give up.” Sometimes family members function like misguided cheerleaders, encouraging dad to overcome what they want to believe is temporary adversity — all this in spite of a clear word from medical personnel that he is actively dying.
I regularly visit with people who refuse to speak the word cancer, or who cannot come to terms with a range of other maladies. I knew a man who was too scared of death to visit his life mate in the hospital. He felt her disease running roughshod over his dreams. To peek in on the realities of her death would crush his optimism.
But you and I don’t have to play this game of living in unreality. The Christian faith is more than optimism. Trusting God is greater than longing wistfully for a return to yesterday. Faith is about confidently grounding oneself in the grace of God such that the joy of the future, not to mention the blessedness of the past, supersedes the burden of any present circumstances.
So, what might you keep in mind when talking with a dying person, or with family members sharing the experience?
First, prize the value of honesty. Denial is poison. So is contrived silence. Of course you can talk about death in front of your fading mother. People who are dying tend to know they are dying. Provided you and the infirm person possess a faith sturdy enough to handle transitions beyond your control, there is no good reason to detour around honesty.
Second, recognize that nothing beats the gift of presence. Think of yourself as an emissary of God dressed in skin. When the psalmist speaks of walking through a valley where death casts its impressive shadow, the invitation to walk without fear exists precisely because there is someone else present. The only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone. Your companionship may keep God from becoming a vague abstraction in the head of a scared friend.
Finally, remind yourself that dying is a natural part of life. God planned for it. It’s not as if the person experiencing life’s final hours deserves special pity, while God has selected you to avoid ever having to face end things. No, we’re all in this together, letting go of one life to behold a glorious other one.
Article appeared on The Lutheran