Will You See Me Off?

“Is there anything else we can do to help Michael?” I asked.  The Dad of 2 small girls looked up at me sheepishly. “Well, there is something I would like to talk to someone about.” His eyes darted over to her wife who was standing hear her hospital bed. Michael is battling stage 4 cancer, and each  new report that comes back is more and more bleak.

“We can talk about anything. What is on your mind?” I asked.

“If I do not make it….”  His wife interrupted him here. “You will be fine.”

“But if I do not make it…” She interrupted him again, “Don’t talk like that. No negative talk.” With that, she kissed him on the forehead. “I’m gonna go get a cup of coffee. I’ll be right back babe.” She left the room giving me a warning look.

Michael looked at me urgently. “I know that my chances are not good. And Leila is in denial. She won’t talk to me about my will, my last wishes, my power of attorney- nothing! Can you understand that I NEED to know that my wife and kids are going to be cared for? That I am terrified of being kept alive on machines forever? She has no clue that I have 2 very large life insurance policies that would take care of her and the kids indefinitely. She won’t listen to where I keep the insurance info. I know she is trying to be only positive around me. But it is just making me feel more and more alone and out of control I need to talk through these decisions. I’m so anxious for my family.” The words just seemed to pour out of Michael, in a hurry.  “Will you help me write up my living will for the hospital staff and for my family? At least will you listen to what I have down and offer suggestions?”

“Of course I will listen! You know I’m a pastor and not a lawyer, but I will offer any help I can,” I offered. His face lit up with relief and hope.

Together we went over his final wishes calmly and thoroughly. Michael leaned forward and took a deep breath. “I feel so very relieved right now.  I can go on fighting. I just need to know that Leila and  the boys will be ok.”

When I left Michael’s hospital room, I found Leila curled up next to the vending machine weeping.  When we talked, she told me that he just could not face the thought of life without Michael. She also said thats he was determined to never ever be “negative” around Michael. To her, any talk of death was, “giving up.”

I am determined to learn all I can and try my best to be for and minister to this couple during this tough time. Some of the  important things I am learning include: A. death is such a crucial time in a person’s life, in the family member’s lives, B..sometimes the person just needs someone to be there, to listen  and perhaps to help them “set their house in order.”

I can honestly say that when I went to Bible College for Children’s Ministry, I had not imagined myself doing end of life visitations or performing funerals or ministering to families that were grieving. I should have.  Over and over again in my 17 years as a staff pastor, I have been called upon to minister to families walking through grief and loss. I am realizing however, that this whole area of “End of Life Care,” is a fast growing, yet terribly under resourced ministry in our churches. According to a report from the National Institute of Aging, Americans are living longer than ever. More and more Americans are dying at home now too, in hospice or palliative care programs.  Because Americans are living longer, and more of them are dying at home, what does that mean for the church? Well, our churches are aging more and more as well.  In fact, a recent study found that 1/4 of American church members are 65 or older. That means that more and more of our congregation members are going to be facing end of life illnesses and final decisions. And it seems like a tragedy for the church to be silent during one of the/if not THE most important time in a person’s life. To me, the most important part of a book or a movie is the ending.Even if someone was a coward or a villain in the film- they might just redeem themselves in the end before the credits! Shouldn’t more of our focus as THE Church be on FINISHING well?

The Bible actually has a lot to say on the subject of death. And it doesn’t talk much about AVOIDING death. What does Scripture tell us about death?

  1. We are ALL going to die (barring those going in the Rapture, according to my faith). (Heb. 9:27, 1 Thess. 4:17-18)
  2. Our lives are short, even if we live 100 years- it’s over in a flash. (James 4:14, Psalm 39: 5-6)
  3. Jesus went through death first, and conquered it. (Col. 1:18, 1 Cor. 15:57, Rom 6:8-10)
  4. Death is not the end.( Revelation 14:13, John 11: 25-26)
  5. We will see those we loved, who died in Christ. (1 Thess 4:13-18)

How did people in the Bible approach death? In the Old Testament, the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph) would realize that they were going to die soon. Then they would gather all of their family around them and speak a blessing/prophesy over them. They were “setting their house in order” (setting their earthly and spiritual affairs in order) before they died, surrounded by their families (example Gen. 39).  In the New Testament, Christians are pictured as going to their deaths confidently (sometimes as martyrs), assured of eternal life in Christ. Paul famously said at the end of his life, right before being martyred, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8. How amazing to be able to say that at the end of a life! So a comprehensive look at Scripture seems to teach that we should prepare for death, with confidence and faith in Christ, looking back on a life lived all out for Jesus, having all of our earthly and spiritual affairs in order, speaking blessings on our family as we go. “The day of death is better than the day of birth.” Eccl 7:1.

This beautiful picture of ending life well reminds me of stories my grandmother has told me. My grandmother who is now 86 was a pastor’s wife for 35+ years.  This is one story she told me. “Back then, we thought about death differently. People didn’t usually die at the hospital. They died at home. And when they were close, you called the pastor and all the family to pray together in the room until they were gone. One time, this elderly lady called your granddad and I to say she thought she was close. She loved Jesus and was battling the cancer for years. We called her son, and we raced over. We prayed with her as she rocked in her rocking chair. She said, ‘Lord, I’m ready to go.’  A few minutes later, we looked up from prayer and she was gone. It was a beautiful moment and we were glad to be there for it. Her son pulled up a few minutes later.”

I feel bad when I hear stories like this, because I do not feel that the church is as involved these days in the end of a person’s life.  If the church IS dropping the ball a bit in the realm of end of life ministry, I could pinpoint a few reasons for that.

  1. Our culture does not like to face the reality of death. The Victorians used to keep death in front of them at all times. Funerals were held in homes. With disease running rampant and little medical care, death was all around them. Victorians even coined the phrase, “Remember you will die.” Our culture seems to be the opposite. We pretend that we will never die. We keep bodies and dying people far away from the public. It helps us keep our happy illusion of immortality.
  2. Some denominations, including mine, pray for the person to recover. I totally agree with praying for a person to get better. But talking about death and final wishes CAN be perceived as a lack of faith. I disagree with death being caused by a lack of faith either on the part of the person or those praying for them. Everyone eventually dies. And death may be God’s way of fully healing that person.
  3. Our pastors and key volunteers are usually not trained well to deal with death, tragedy or grief. It is scary and sad to be present when someone is dying/has died. It reminds us of our own mortality. It may feel like an intrusion of the family’s time. So, fear may hold us back from ministering well when someone is leaving earth.

So, how could the church do a better job of ministering to individuals and families facing loss and grief? According to the funeral director here in my town, many families are totally unprepared when death strikes. They often made NO plans for the funeral (even for family members who were in their 90’s!). These families often need guidance in putting the service together and making 100’s of little decisions- and they have to make their decisions in a very short amount of time and while dealing with their own grief. What if the family has to make the awful decision of whether or not to keep a family member on life support? They badly need their church family through that. My church’s stance is of not doing anything to end life in any way (euthanasia). But I think more pastors and key leaders should be trained in dealing with crisis, in grief care and in ministry to those at the end of life.

When I recently  interviewed the nurses in my local hospital’s emergency department, they shared with me that they used to have a whole list of pastors who were willing to come to the hospital for emergencies. But now, over the years, they only have 2 pastors willing to stay on that list! The nurses said that often they cannot get a pastor willing to come if the person is not one of their parishioners. So they take turns sitting with the person, because they do not want them to die alone. This broke my heart. Where is the church? I hope to bring attention to the crucial mission field of those with one foot in eternity- and their families grieving the loss. My hope is that the church will step up to this mission field, white for harvest, and help more of our congregation members to FINISH WELL!

What do YOU think? What is the role of the church with those who are dying? With the families of those who lost someone? Love Trisha

hospice

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Recer, Paul. “Older Americans Living Longer, Study Says.” ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=118056.

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardgleckman/2013/02/06/more-people-are-dying-at-home-and-in-hospice-but-they-are-also-getting-more-intense-hospital-care/#645203a75f99

 

“Aging Congregations May Be Churches’ Biggest Concern.” Insights into Religion, religioninsights.org/articles/aging-congregations-may-be-churches-biggest-concern.

 

“End of life End-of-Life care.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 23 July 2016, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/basics/endoflife-care/hlv-20049403.

 

Nichols, Hannah. “The top 10 leading causes of death in the United States.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 23 Feb. 2017, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/282929.php.

 

https://ag.org/Beliefs/Topics-Index/Medical-Euthanasia-and-Extraordinary-Support-to-Sustain-Life

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