When serving as a chaplain for another hospice—like hopefully all chaplains in all hospices—I never emphasized my personal faith. But then and now Christianity influences me, even as I try to remain open to learning from the various religious traditions (or lack of religion) represented by the dying patients and families that have been part of my work.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16)
This verse from Luke is one of the places where Jesus broke the rule about not working on the Sabbath—he healed!—and was condemned by the religious authorities. Worse, he healed a . . . woman! Worse yet, the incident occurred in a synagogue. While I am a Christian pastor, I don’t think the implications of this passage are limited to Christianity or Judaism. Whether someone is Hindu, agnostic, or spends weekends worshipping a three iron while strolling along a favorite golf course, Jesus’ statement resonated with universal truth.
I’ve seen it in hospice. One of the suggestions I make to families is to let their loved one know—when it seems appropriate—that it will be all right for him or her to die.
Maybe a person of faith, with tears and anguish, invites the dying loved one to trust that death is not the end. Let go, return fully to God, Allah, the Higher Authority. Or a person without faith, also with tears and anguish, invites the dying loved one to trust that death will not reduce the meaning of their life or cause them to be forgotten by the living. Let go, let the suffering end.
And yet how hard letting go can be for some.
One of my patients was never told by his wife that it was all right for him to die. It was impossible for her and, in part, I understood. His nurse and I wondered if that was why he lingered longer than anyone expected. We also wondered if he knew his lovely bride of over sixty years had departed her bedside vigil to microwave leftovers for herself. She was gone for mere seconds, and that’s when he finally died.
I think the husband knew she had momentarily left the room.
Another patient, in the care of her brother and sister-in-law, was quietly and lovingly told that she could die. In silence, and with spoken words, they prayed by her side. She was ready; they were ready. Still . . . days went by till death finally, finally happened. Why did her death take so long? It’s an answer I can’t give. But I believe, as I spent time with her family, that while they would experience grief that would cut to the core of their hearts, their grieving would also heal.
The brother and sister-in-law’s shared work at making her last days meaningful invited her dying, and their living, to be defined by love.
Then there was the patient, as cancer fiercely destroyed his body, that told his out-of-town daughters not to visit anymore. No deathbed vigils! He didn’t want his “kids” to see Dad so helpless. But his hospice nurse scolded him with, “Let them come and be with you!” With an immense effort, he wrote a note (no email or text would do) to his daughters, giving them the freedom to again visit.
I asked him, “Are there things you need to say to them, or will your daughters being with you be the most important?”
Without hesitation, he replied, “I just want them to be with me.”
I think he learned—as I continue to learn—that the power of healing comes when we help release each other from the bondage of our fears.
As I write these words, and recall those patients from years ago—those dying, living, fearful, hopeful people—the dawn of a new day (and new year) nears. I love these moments when the tiny chunk of earth we straddle spins again into the sun’s effortless light. This newborn day is where I can dare to make a difference in my life and another’s life. Or will I do nothing? Will I instead be bound by thinking my actions don’t matter? Oh, how tempting are self-doubt’s infinite excuses. But dawn keeps coming, the sun unbound as the planet rocks and rolls. Fresh light blesses the crumpled surface of this hurting world.
I’m bound by this landscape, between earth and sky, between my failures and achievements, between birth and death. But on this new day, I pray I’ll support another as they unbind their wounds . . . as I also try to unbind my own.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by