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How Pastors Can Help Congregants Accept Death

How often from the waiting rooms and hallways of hospitals do I hear, “Let us hope he can rally again!” or “Is it really over?”
Several years ago, I stood by the bedside of an elderly woman who was in the last minutes of her life. Her husband of 60 years and her son stood opposite me.

She took a few final breaths then ceased all signs of life. Her husband gasped and looked at me as if to ask, “What is happening?”

I will never forget his arms flailing upward as he said, “You mean it is just like that and it is over? Just like that? Can’t we have a few more minutes?”

The language of loss and the language of hope may, at times, come into conflict as we face end-of-life issues.

Withdrawing treatment or life support is often viewed in terms of defeat after “battling” an illness. Instead of recognizing a life well lived, the language of losing and winning takes center stage.

Recently, a man with lung cancer with brain metastases spoke to me of his perceived need to fight to the very end so that his family would know that he gave his best to defeat the cancer.

From the pulpit, in the prayer meeting or even in the waiting room, the language of “doing battle” with death or “fighting the good fight,” and the necessity of doing so is often heard.

In our culture, we are prone to do everything possible to continue life – sometimes even when life is clearly over – and we place great hope and trust in medical treatment to sustain life.

In his book “The Christian Art of Dying,” Allen Verhey writes eloquently of “medicalized” dying. “Medicalized death” happens in a hospital, which is where our culture transferred dying during the last century.

The idea of dying a “tamed death,” which relied on community support and some degree of ritual, was abandoned in favor of “wild death,” Verhey asserts, where science and technology did all that is thought to be possible to preserve life.

After all, to admit that death has “won” becomes, in the eyes of some, a sign of hope lost.

Acknowledging that death is unavoidably near may change the dynamics at the bedside. Sometimes family and friends object to talking about imminent death with the dying loved one or they leave the bedside of the dying person as their discomfort with death overtakes them.

The dying person hopefully will draw the last breath surrounded by loved ones, but such is not a given. We often die in specialized units that are dedicated to sustaining life.

The well-trained medical staff is quite good at what they do, working diligently and with compassion. But “medicalized” dying, even that offered by hospice and palliative care, comes with the risk of loss of community for the dying person.

The dynamics of hope in a “hopeless” situation deserve our thought and prayer.

Is it giving up hope to accept that the end of life has indeed come? Is that all there is when the last breath is drawn or when brain waves cease? What is the basis of our hope as people of faith?

Verhey captures an important truth with these words: “To its great credit medicine resists death. But unless there is some other (non-medical) response to this threat of death, unless there is some confidence that death will not have the last word, unless there is some basis for hope in God, we are finally abandoned to death and all its threats are made good.”

In church, we tend to have easy, pat and glib answers to such questions, but they tend not to fly well at the deathbed, for it is there grief must first do its work.

Some well-meaning person may say, “He is with Jesus now” or “We will see him in the resurrection.” For most, such is neither helpful nor necessarily good theology.

Since our dying is a part of our lives, we must consider how we will leave this life. We need to articulate a theology of dying just as we have a theology of living.

As pastors, we need to help our congregants deal with these difficult questions. Often our theology, embedded from childhood, is simply not up to the task.

Quoting a few Scriptures will not get it done. We must give serious reconsideration to what Scripture says (or does not say) about life after death, the meaning of “salvation,” resurrection, healing and miracles.

In doing so, we may be able to live hopefully with impending death, even our own.

This is not an easy task!

Bill Holmes is an ordained Baptist (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) pastor and part-time hospital chaplain. He retired from medicine after 34 years of practicing and teaching pediatrics and pediatric neurology. He is also a doctor of ministry student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.