Comfort Near Death

In seminary I remember being warned by a prof about the danger people can be in near death.  This may sound a bit oxymoronic – isn’t anyone near death already in danger?  Certainly this is true, but the gravity of the situation can be aggravated.

This happens by well-meaning doctors, nurses, and family members.  Wishing to spare the person additional stress, sorrow, or any other negative emotions, they deliberately mislead the person as to their condition, or the odds of their survival.  By telling lies they seek to bring the person comfort.  With good intentions, however, the potentially deprive that person of being aware of their condition and intentionally spending time making peace with God.

I’ve always remembered this, and I’ve tried to be straightforward with the people I visit at home or in the hospital.  When the understanding of those around them is they are near death, I try to specifically ask them if they are fearful or have anything they would like to confess or otherwise talk about.  I am encouraged by the faith of some who are ready to meet their maker, firm in the promises of Jesus Christ.  I am likewise encouraged by some who take the opportunity for a confession or question or discussion.

But they need to know their situation accurately in order to best prepare themselves.  This especially true as, more and more often, final hours and days  are spent heavily sedated and unable to engage in conversation.  The goal is comfort, but comfort goes beyond the physical to the spiritual.

I had an interesting discussion the other day where someone expressed a reluctance to trouble the people of our congregation with the difficult reality of our congregation – that they are almost all well into retirement age and beyond, and there is no younger generation of kids and grandkids behind them to take over the congregation when they are no longer able to run it.  When this group of people pass (and barring a miracle of the Holy Spirit), only a handful (literally) might remain, not enough to sustain things as they are and have been.

He felt it was inappropriate to trouble them with thinking about the future of the congregation beyond their lifetime, that it would be a source of stress to them and could result in some of them leaving the congregation.  He spoke from a position of empathy, personally having experienced the loss of a spouse, the struggle of long-term care for a spouse with debilitating conditions, and other very real struggles people often face as they age.  And I know many in my congregation do deal with these issues or have in the recent past.  While I can sympathize and empathize with them, I haven’t been through these struggles personally and therefore there is much I don’t know and can’t begin to imagine.  This doesn’t change the reality that I have been called to be their pastor and shepherd, but it does make me second-guess myself at times.

Which is more loving, to not talk about hard things with people already facing hard things?  Or is it more loving to be honest about the hard things and allow people the opportunity to grapple with them for themselves.  I have a high opinion of my members.  Some of them may be less vigorous now in age as they once were, but they have lived long lives through difficult times.  The Great Depression.  World Wars.  The loss of loved ones.  Challenging economic times.  As such, I credit them with a deep reserve of resilience – a reserve only heightened and extended by their faith in Jesus.  I’d rather honor their capabilities even when that is challenging and requires a lot of time and explanation, than simply not tell them everything soas not to add burdens to them.

And just like with visiting the seriously ill, most of the time there is an awareness already of the gravity of the situation.  We talk optimistically, but when reality is broached, most people are willing and able to respond to that.  I pray the same is true of my congregation and the future of the congregation.  I believe some challenging realities need to be faced and challenging decisions made.  But I’d rather give them all the details so they can make those decisions to the best of their ability, even if it’s challenging.

I pray and believe they’re capable of it, and I trust that through it all, God the Holy Spirit is present and more than capable of providing the strength and clarity needed to make those decisions, so they know they are ready for whatever the future holds, to the best of their ability, resting in the promises of our Lord who has conquered not only the physical death we each will likely face, but all the powers of evil arrayed against us individually and corporately while we yet live.  

I know I tend to expect more from people rather than less.  I like to think this is the better, more honoring thing to do.  But it might not always be, and I am grateful for those who challenge me to examine my way of approaching people and things to make sure it seems appropriate given the situation.

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