Archives for posts with tag: death

Today my grandmother passed away. Even though she was 90 years old and in frail health, you are never really “ready.” My memories of grandma are of a fiery, passionate woman of God who loved gum drops, root beer and Burger King. She had the energy of a hyperactive chipmunk after 4 monster drinks. She was so full of life (and orneriness) we all thought she’d outlive us all! At 80 years old she was diagnosed with cancer and the doctor told her she would need a permanent port because she was not going to survive it. She answered, “Well, just because you said that, I’m going to beat this cancer- just to spite you!” And she did. She was cancer free by 82. When I was feeling down or someone had been nasty to me, she would “preach” at me, “You get that chin up right now young lady. You’re a child of God! You are a Stevens!” Grandma had a great singing voice and was also a good shot at the shooting range. A few years ago I had the privilege of riding the Badger Ferry with grandma and my kids- we had a blast, even though Grandma sneaked her tiny dog on board and ate doughnuts the whole trip.

We are weeks away from Thanksgiving. And these holidays will be without grandma. You do not get to choose when you lose someone. You do not get to choose (sometimes) when a church transition happens. You may not get to postpone a heartache until January.

Some of my dearest friends are in the middle of fiery trials and ordeals right now. My heart aches for 2 of my friends who had major tragedies last week. Another of my close friends is in a gut-wrenching church battle right now. Perhaps you too are facing a different kind of holiday season this year.

If you are having a fantastic holiday and so is everyone you know, fantastic.  That’s wonderful. But this blog may not be relevant for ya, at least not this year. I would like to have a word with those of you who may NOT be having a great holiday season right now….

Several years ago, Christmas Day- As my little 2 year old daughter began opening her third gift, I heard my phone ring. I was confused at first seeing that my phone wasn’t on; THEN I saw it was the on call phone. I picked up the phone and answered.  On the other line I heard the tired voice of an older man.  He asked me, “I want you to give me one good reason not to end it all right here and now.”  Hey family, I need to go outside for a bit. I need to take this.

You have probably heard it said that the Holidays are the hardest time of year for some people. When I was younger I never knew how true that was. Coming on staff at a large church, I thought the reason none of the staff wanted to be on call during the holidays was purely due to family obligations. But having holiday time with the family was only PART of the reason that the pastoral staff did not relish being on call for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years. My first year, as the newbie on staff, I was on call during Christmas Day. It really changes your whole perspective on the holidays talking to people who are suicidal on Christmas. And your eyes are opened to the very large number people all around us who are hurting at the “happiest” time of the year.

Perhaps we are not as aware of this sadness in the church, because we have created a culture that says, “If you are really a good Christian, you will be happy all the time.  You will live in victory daily.”  This causes many Christians to hide their very real feelings, and the fact that they need a friend, because they are pretending to be “happy”. And some of these Christians wonder, “Is there something wrong with me, because I am not happy right now? Would other Christians understand or even be able to help?” We live in a broken, fallen world. The church and our American culture have created this artificial reality- that we are immune to heartbreak if we do the “right” things.  We can stay young, wealthy, have all we want and need.  As the poet aptly said, “Childhood is the Kingdom where nobody dies.” -Edna St. Vincent Millay. When you grow up, you begin to see, on planet earth bad things happen to ALL people, good, bad…etc. And if we will be honest, that is exactly what the Bible says- and what Jesus told us would happen: “In this world you WILL have trouble….they will persecute you and throw you out of synagogues for My Name’s sake….some of you will be delivered over to death…but the end is not yet etc etc etc” I do not believe Bible stories are just “stories”.  The accounts of certain lives are there for a reason! EVERY single one of the heroes and patriarchs of the Bible went through terrible times. And we are not exempt. We weren’t promised to be happy all the time.

I have two separate friends who lost their moms this year.  Another good friend lost a baby. One needs major heart surgery for herself, and she has 2 small children at home. I know they are going into the holidays uncertain.

I remember at least one holiday season that was  the worst time of my life.  I ended up curled up over the steering wheel of my car, listening to the sleet pelting the roof, outside of Lowe’s, crying my eyes out.  I knew I had to go home and make Christmas as wonderful as possible for my two young children.  But I remember thinking to myself, “Is this really Christmas for us this year??? This isn’t supposed to be how it is! Wait, where is the ‘holiday magic’ that somehow swoops in and makes this all ok?”

So if we know that the holidays are harder for us (even Christians) sometimes, then what can we do to get through the holidays on a difficult year? What can we do to help those in our lives who are struggling this season? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Know that you are not “bad” or “abnormal” to feel down at times during the holidays.  It is perfectly normal to be reminded of a loss at important events. It is normal to feel down, stressed and even blah. The thought of being on a huge emotional high through the whole holiday season is an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation for anyone.

2. You are not alone.  A lot of people have major lows during the holidays.

3. It is ok to go talk to someone and get help.  You owe it to yourself and your family to be honest and take care of YOU. That doesn’t make you less of a Christian, a strong person or a parent.

4. It is ok to have some happiness during the holidays even if you have had a major loss. Some people feel very guilty if they feel happy during the holidays if they have lost someone. It’s ok to laugh and have fun too…there’s no rule book for how you have to feel.  And more than likely the person or people you are missing would love to see you smile too.

5. Create some new traditions.  It is great to keep up old traditions. But one thing that is very healing after a loss is to incorporate a new tradition or two.  A tradition to remember the good that was, and a tradition to look forward to the good that will be. Which brings us to:

6. Remember that there WILL be better seasons to come. Everything in this life comes in seasons. In the middle of a tough holiday season, it is easy to think, “This is how things will be from now on. It will always be this way.”  But a good friend once told me, “There is life out there beyond this. And no it’s not the same as before.  But it’s a good good life.”  I hung on to that during a dark time, and it proved to be so true.  Life will continue to change; but good IS coming.  God’s Word promises us that God’s plans for us are GOOD.  And that “all things work together for GOOD for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

7. Last but not least: Make a list of all you are thankful for. Now before you shriek, “Wait? You want me to be THANKFUL after the year I’ve had?” remember that pain can blind us to everything that is still good in our lives. Remember the story in the Bible about the widow and her two mites? Jesus said she gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had.  Perhaps the one who is sad on Thanksgiving, but who stops to thank God for all the good still in their life, is so very precious to God, because it probably takes everything they have. “In EVERYTHING give thanks, for this is the will of God.” It is easy for someone in a good year to be thankful; but if you’ve had a rough year, your thanks and praise are much more of a sacrifice.  And I have found that stopping to thank God, when there seems to be nothing going right, is when I seem to feel Him here, and sense His working the most.

Are you having a wonderful, fun filled Thanksgiving and Holiday Season? Fantastic! That’s great. Are this year’s festivities particularly difficult? I am wishing to send you a great big hug right now through my laptop and say, “you are loved, and good IS on the way”. God bless you this Thanksgiving and Christmas and all through this next year- whether a good or a bad year- may you feel Him with you, working in your life. Love Trisha  and P.S. Grandma, I love you. So glad you made it home. I will remember to keep my chin up.

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This is one of the most difficult parts of my job.  This is one of the things they didn’t train me for in Bible College. A church member, who is also a dear friend, had lost their young child.  And I am standing in the doorway of their hospital room. Surrounding the child’s bed are the grief stricken parents, looking lost and blank, as well as several friends and family members. I’m twisting my hands behind my back, desperately praying in my head for wisdom. Just then, the husband’s well meaning aunt calmly states, “Don’t worry, you’ll have another child, and then you’ll hardly even remember this moment.”  Anger and astonishment boil up from my heart into my neck and turn my face bright red. I clench my teeth shut so I don’t erupt. This is not the time, nor the place- and confrontation is not what I am here for. I am here for these parents.

Most pastors have had people say insensitive, albeit well meaning, things at funerals. Here are a few of the more common things I really wish people would not say at a death or a funeral:

“Heaven needed another angel.” – Despite the obvious theological problems with this statement- humans and angels are NOT the same creations/species and humans do not turn into angels after death, the statement is very trite, and claims that God took the child because of heaven’s need. This adds to the feeling they may already be struggling with, “God TOOK someone I loved away from me.”

“too bad they didn’t make heaven”- Whether or not you believe that the deceased person made it to heaven or not, a death or a funeral is NOT the place to have that discussion. Your focus now has to be on the family of the deceased. And you may not have all the facts, some things we will not know for sure until we get to heaven ourselves.  And all the speculation is pointless, and may just hurt rather than help, at the funeral.

“When you have another baby, you won’t think about this one” (see story at the beginning)- No person can ever take the place of another person. Each child, each human is unique, and there will never be another them. Let that person recognize and grieve that loss- an individual who is no longer there. Having more babies, or having more children will not take away the loss or the grief.

“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”- This is a twisting of a Scripture in James that tell us that God will not give us more temptation than we can handle.  Many times, it seems to me, God allows situations in our lives, for reasons we do not understand- and these situations are far more than we can handle.  And it is in these situations that God has to carry us, because we simply cannot handle them in our own strength.

“We are here for you” and then disappear right after the funeral.- Do not say things that you do not mean. It has been well said before that people will not remember much of what you say after a tragedy or at the funeral.  But they will remember that you were there. Being there is so important. And not just right after the loss has occurred. When the funeral is over, and the cards have stopped coming, and the relatives have all gone home. and everyone else has moved on….that may be when that person/family needs you the most. Grief has no set timeline. Children especially will have a delayed response. They may suddenly need your love and support 6 months, a year or more after the traumatic event.

“Well, God took them because……” This one probably bothers me the most. As Christians, we are unnerved if we sense someone may be getting upset with God when they are grieving. Listen, we do not need to defend God. We humans always try to find the why in every situation. But sometimes we never know the WHY this side of heaven.  But we are called to trust His love anyway. God is big enough to handle the anger that comes right along with the grief. We shouldn’t try to make up desperate explanations to defend God when we do not really understand the situation ourselves.

“At least they were so old. It won’t be as hard.” It doesn’t matter how elderly the person was when they passed away; the family will still grieve. You are never ready to lose your father or mother etc. Their age made them no less precious. And you are never really “ready” to lose a loved one.

“They were sick so long, at least you were ready for it.” Like we said above, you are never truly “ready” to lose a loved one.  No matter how long they have been ill.  You will still grieve.

“At least they weren’t born yet so you didn’t get attached.”  AHHHHHH! Any mother who has lost an unborn child will tell you that the attachment begins right away- when you feel them move, see them growing, and watch those ultrasounds.  The attachment is a LOVE so strong- complete with hopes, joy and dreams that die along with that beautiful child. And I have seen fathers grieving right along with their wives after a miscarriage.

“just think of Job. Your loss isn’t that bad then.” Misery does not always love company. Pointing out someone else’s tragedy probably will not make a family feel better about their loss. And it almost comes off as “guilting” like “well, your loss isn’t nearly as bad as theirs……”. You cannot compare losses, tragedies or heartbreaks.  Scripture tells us, “Each heart knows its own bitterness” Prov 14:10 We all grieve differently. Comparisons don’t really help.

“The only grief counseling you need is a Bible and a prayer closet.” -Scripture and prayer are fantastic, especially during times of grief.  But I always point people to grief counseling as well. Most pastors are NOT trained in grief counseling or trauma intervention. There are specialists who ARE trained in these situations and are ready to help. It is wonderful to use Scripture and prayer; AND counseling- People going through a loss are going to need all the support and all the tools we can give them.

“Time heals all wounds”- That is not an actual Scripture verse. Although Revelation tells us that God will “wipe every tear from our eyes” (in heaven). Time does not take away the loss; we just learn to live with it and survive around it.  God gives us the strength we just don’t have, to find the beauty and smiles in life again.  But you will always miss that person, until you see them again.

What should we say to a grieving person/family? Not a whole lot. Be there for them- at the time of the tragedy, and in the many months to follow. Listen. Give hugs. Do send Scriptures and cards. Let them know you are praying for them (and mean it). Let them cry, let them be angry, relive memories of the lost person with them. Point them to Jesus- Who alone can get them through the unbearable. Be there for them.  Because eventually, inevitably, you’ll need them to be there for you too. “Your love for one another will prove you are My disciples”- Jesus  Matt 13:35

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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

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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