Dying is Often the Easy Part

Marge was in her late 80s, hospitalized for congestive heart failure.  When we first met, she was being attended to by her daughter, Karen, who welcomed me in.  “Mom’s doing better today.  She’s active in her church, she’ll be happy to see you.”  We settled in for a nice conversation about her family, her faith, and her friends, and Karen and I departed together.

When I returned two days later, Marge was in her bedside chair wearing a bright lilac print dress—a sure sign she was being discharged.  I commented that it looked like she was having a good day.

“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed.  “The doctor came by this morning and said there is nothing more they can do for me.  I’ll be going home very soon to Jesus, and to my parents, and to all who have gone before me.  It’s so exciting, I can hardly wait!  I’ve been on the phone telling all my friends.”

What can one say to that?  One might or might not share Marge’s theology, but her joy was infectious.  Wouldn’t we all hope to be so positive nearing end of life?  I joined in her celebratory prayer and wished her a good journey.

On the way back to my office I ran into Karen coming off the elevator.  “Have you seen my mother today?” she asked anxiously.  I told her I was just coming from her room, and that we’d had a good visit.

“Really?” she asked.  “Because she’s calling all her friends and telling them she’s going home to Jesus now.  They are freaking out, and I am, too.”

“I think you need to go talk to your mother” was all I could say.

If there is one lesson chaplaincy teaches endlessly, it’s that we can control or change so little.  I might have once thought a chaplain’s job was to say something transformative, but it’s much more about presence and listening.  Rather than feeling the need to be a font of wisdom, we need to trust the patient (or loved one) to know what needs to be said, and to leave them feeling deeply listened to and validated.  With rare exception, a chaplain fixes nothing.

It’s a helpful lesson, especially when dealing with mortality—the “problem” that can’t be fixed.  Whether through instinct or culture, though, we keep trying.  When the topic is our own existence, we tend to ask for whatever treatment is most likely to prolong our life.  At some point, though, for most people, death’s inevitability becomes clear, and we become reconciled to our inability to change the outcome.

When the life on the line is that of a loved one, though, it can be much harder.  We don’t feel our loved one’s pain or exhaustion. We don’t go through their deeply personal evaluation of the struggle to keep living vs. the possibilities of what lies beyond death (even if simply nothingness).  We focus instead on our own dread of the loss we see coming—perhaps because we have never known such a loss, perhaps because it conjures up painful losses from our past.  It’s a brutal reminder that life brings suffering that we are powerless to prevent.  It cannot be fixed.

What we can do, as a chaplain or as a loved one, is accompany.  We can try to be present to the other’s reality, to give them space to tell us difficult things, to help them feel known the way they want to be known.  I understand why Marge’s daughter and friends didn’t want to hear what Marge had to say, but that was Marge’s reality at that time and she wanted company in her joy.  This, at least, I could offer her.

I’ve often wondered how the conversation went after I parted with Karen by the elevator.  I wasn’t invited to join that conversation, and it wasn’t my job to insert myself. I have to trust that they could lead each other to where they needed to be.  I have my hopes, but I will never know.  I rarely do.

5 thoughts on “Dying is Often the Easy Part

  1. janetlevy

    Thank you so much for sending this to me. I loved what you wrote. Yes it is true. When it comes to the subject of death very few people will talk and fewer still will listen. Please keep sending these to me. You are doing fabulous work. It does not surprise me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kay Ellison

    Thank you, Greg, for telling your perspective on this. I now try very hard to just listen now, not give advice at all. But your thoughts about being the person who is grieving in advance helps me, too. My sister just had a mastectomy and they found a lymph node with cancer. Fortunately they say they got it all, and the chemo they will now do is preventative. I first cried in advanced grief, now crying with relief that it is probably okay. But I struggle with how to be supportive in the best way. Thank you for your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Magical Thinking – Elder Chaplain

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