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Monday, June 11, 2012

Approaching the Death of a Loved One

The following is a letter I recently sent to a Christian woman who was concerned about how, and if, to approach the subject of dying with a close family member who may be nearing death in the next year or so. This is advice, or spiritual counsel, for a Christian wanting to talk with a fellow believer.

{I have also visited with others who were Buddhists, Muslims, and rank non-religionists as they neared death. For them, my advice would be similar, but with some marked differences that are not listed below. I may save that for another post.}
Dear Sister,

After thinking over our conversation, I have put together some thoughts that may be helpful with regard to talking with a loved one about death and dying.

1. As you know, we see God Himself kindly informing people of their approaching death. One of the most notable examples is King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20.1). Most of the time we cringe away from the topic and seek to sugar coat the whole affair, deceiving ourselves (the surviving family) and the one dying. This is understandable because death is still in a sense an enemy (“the last enemy” 1 Corinthians 15.26). But it is also harmful if the deception is carried out through to the end. To die unprepared, to die deluded, is a challenge to the dying person’s faith, especially if we have been making unfounded promises about them getting better or that God will heal them (whether verbally, or non-verbally by our avoiding the subject altogether and trying to be “perky” around the one dying). Obviously I am not advocating a gloomy, dark, morbidity, for we really don’t know when, or even if, death will overtake that person who appears to be dying. But there is a sober-mindedness in our approaching the subject, with a loving delicateness, as that time appears to be imminent. And not only bringing up the subject with the dying person, but with their family.

Now, I must warn you, not everyone will hear you. I have watched people respond to the news in odd ways. Many will appreciatively accept the fact you have named the elephant in the room. Yet, some will try to hush you up, and some will cheerily, or dully, ignore you. At that point, you will simply have to step back and wait for another opportunity, as it presents itself.

2. God’s kindness is seen in the fact that He not only informs Hezekiah of what the conclusion of his sickness will bring soon (death), but also to encourage him to “set your house in order.” This allowed Hezekiah time to pray (which he did, 2 Kings 20.2-3). Though God chose to give Hezekiah a 15 year reprieve (which He may or may not do for your loved one), nevertheless, honestly and sensitively letting them know what appears to be the case will give them time for repentance, renewed fellowship with God, reconciliation to others as may be needed, and even growing sanctification.

I once was visiting a patient who was bedded at an in-patient Hospice facility. She was a younger-than-usual woman (40ish) for Hospice. Her disease was slow and took away more and more of her faculties of communication. One day I arrived and the nurse pulled me aside telling me that she and the patient had had a serious conversation two days before. The patient (let’s call her Sheila) confessed to the nurse that she had done something terrible as a very young woman and felt that God would never forgive her. The nurse tried to comfort Sheila, but she was inconsolable. Finally, the day before I arrived, she had lost the faculty of speech, and seemed agitated and frustrated. After the nurse informed me of this, I entered Sheila’s room, greeted her, and talked with her briefly about things outside her room (weather, sunshine, birds, etc, things she couldn‘t see from her bed). Then I told her I understood she was no longer able to speak, which she acknowledged. I read Scripture to her and explained God’s mercy and love demonstrated to us in Christ, how God’s forgiveness for His people is rich and full. I told her about the value of confessing our sins, and preparing ourselves in this way before we die. I also explained that even if we can’t speak with our mouths any longer that God can hear the cry of our hearts. Finally, I prayed with her, and prayed a confession of sin where I allowed her to confess her own sins in her silence. After about a minute or so of silence, I spoke the words of assurance of pardon to her (1 John 1.9), and said that if she believed in Jesus as her savior, and trusted that He died for her, she had peace with God and could die in peace. She was in tears when I left the room, tears that seemed to be something of relief, not fear. She died the next day, and the nurse told me she died calmly.

Another part of this kindness is that by bringing their impending death to the front, you can then help them and their family arrange for the funeral. Speaking from personal experience, the funeral arranging, if not done a head of time, can often add to the trauma and grief. But if taken care of before hand, will improve the comfort of those who are nearest. If the loved one is still coherent, I would let them know this point as well. That will help them to remember that part of loving their neighbor as themselves means preparing their family for when the day comes and the funeral.

3. Lastly, it is here that we ourselves have the wonderful opportunity to shore-up a fellow believer’s faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. If we are doing to others what we want done to us (Matthew 7.12), then we will bring them the proper hope that we want brought to us in our last moments. By pointing them to our sure and certain hope, our Lord Jesus, we can encourage them to face death with the joy of knowing that death is not the last word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism beautifully rehearses, and encapsulates, what Scripture declares is our hope:
Q37 What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.
Q38 What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection? A. At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.
Though I have blundered my way into people’s lives as they, or their loved ones, neared death, and have on occasion been more “up front” than the situation may have called for, I have found that many have been grateful when all was said and done. It was hard for me to do those things, and it was hard for them.
One final word to ministers. In all honesty, I have found two resources, outside of my Presbyterian confines, that were beneficial when visiting the dying or near-to-death (usually comatose).

1st-the 1929 Book of Common Prayer has a section on “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick” (p. 308-20). You will need to peruse it a head of time to find what fits best, and the little “Litany for the Dying” that starts on page 317 is very helpful. I change the King’s English (Thee’s and Thou’s) as I go along.

2nd-the 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s “Ministration at the Time of Death” (p. 462-65) is a beautiful, helpful segment. I used this as my own father lay in a coma, a few minutes before he died. The only thing I would change is at the very end, on page 465, after “A Commendatory Prayer”. I would modify the next and last prayer to this:
“May his soul and the souls of all the [faithful] departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace [and rise in glory]. Amen.”
“May he and all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.”

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