On Death and Dying

caring hands“When we sit with a dying person, we gain two critical insights into what it means to “be alone together.” First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationship—the arrogance of believing that we have the answer to the other person’s problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand that what is before us is not a “problem to be solved” but a mystery to be honored.  As we find a way to stand respectfully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships would be deepened if we would play the fixer role less frequently.

Second, when we sit with a dying person we realize that we must overcome the fear that often distorts our relationships—the fear that causes us to turn away when the other reveals something too vexing, painful, or ugly to bear. Death may be all of this and more. And yet we hold the dying person in our gaze, our hearts, our prayers, knowing that it would be disrespectful to avert our eyes, that the only gift we have to offer in this moment is our undivided attention.”

Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2004), p. 61

When my mom was dying of cancer, caring for her in the last few weeks of her life was one of the most meaningful, life-giving things I’ve ever done. With the wonderful help of Hospice we were able to honor her last wishes to remain at home. She had always “hated” doctors and hospital so when mom heard she had another bowel obstruction resulting from her colon cancer surgery, it was her wish not to have any more surgeries or go to the hospital for invasive treatment. Of course, my two siblings and I honored her request as she had always been a “homebody.”  Married to a military man who uprooted her every 18 months had taken its toll, and these last several years brought comfort and safety in familiar surroundings.

Hospice helped us make her as comfortable as possible as her frail body began to shut down. We called our families to come and each in their own way said good bye. Mom was still alert enough to listen and respond.  With that, they returned home and my sister, brother and I, remained behind.  Little did we realize how resilient God made the human body.  She soon stopped eating and for the next week and a half, we cared for our dying mom.

We read the booklets on death and dying Hospice had left and were amazed how very much her progress aligned with the prescribed process. At least we knew what to expect. Although bathing her and changing her bed clothes each night was a lot of work (we took great care to respect her dignity), it was a way of honoring the things she loved…like clean pajamas. Care was 24-7 so we took turns dispensing meds and attending to her needs giving the others a much needed break.

What a privilege to have walked this final journey with her.  To be there during those brief moments she would wake and want to talk; to be there when she was uncomfortable and stroke her forehead or hold her hand, and tell her everything is going to be okay; God was preparing a place for her and very soon it will be finished; to laugh together with my brother and sister over growing up memories and argue whose version was more accurate; to be vulnerable enough to cry in each other’s presence; to say a thousand silent good-byes. To be there the moment she entered eternity when we left go of one hand and Jesus took her other.

Not everyone gets this privilege of being present in a loved one’s last moments or experiences as gracious a journey, but the greater tragedy would be to deny the process. One of my cousins refused to visit her. She wanted to “remember her how she was.” What I’ve come to realize is dying is very much a part of living.  It’s very much a part of being human and connected to one another. These are sacred moments to be entered into, not denied.

Although I had never been involved in the intimate care of a dying person, I was aware all along of how profound those moments were and yet surprised how much it impacted me. It is not often we are allowed to offer, without the need to fix, the pure “gift of presence” and are drawn into something that lies beyond the borders of our own experience or comprehension. Somehow this invites us to fully embrace “how it is” and, like Palmer said, the “mystery” that ties us all together as humans. Miraculously, they even become part of our own transformation.

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