Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
— John: 14:1-2
Because I’m a former hospice chaplain and a night-shift hospital chaplain, this quote from a fascinating New Yorker Magazine profile* of a hospice nurse resonated with me:
“Some hospice workers believe that working with the dying is the closest you can get on earth to the presence of God.”
I’ve often said I never feel closer to God than when I’m pastoring someone at the end of life. And I believe there is no greater privilege than to walk with a dying person and the loved ones.
It so happened happened that shortly after I read the aforementioned article last month, a friend of many years emailed me to inform me that her mom had died. She told me about her experience with hospice care, with which she and her family were pleased.
She told me that weeks and days before her mother died peacefully in her home, her mom told the family she was ready to “go home.”
As in home to God, which the family members didn’t understand at first. Not until a hospice chaplain explained that dying people often speak of going “home” in the spiritual sense. (*See note about a chaplain’s role at bottom.)
My friend’s mom was 83. My friend said she and the family had a hard time letting go, of course, initially resisting doctors’ suggestions they sign up for hospice visits in the home.
Letting go of anyone dying–even someone who’s had a long and good life–is as hard as it gets. But honoring the expressed desire to “go home” is a way of honoring the dying one’s personhood. It’s best to affirm the dying wish by saying something like, “We know you’re ready to go but we’ll miss you.”
There is a time to live and a time to die: the elderly at the end of life see that with such clarity they no longer have any fear of death, if they ever did. It’s typically some of the family survivors who can’t bear to hear mom or dad or some loved one speak of their own death.
It’s why so many keep their loved ones living on machines that provide artificial life, not real life, in resistance to “a time to die.”
In the fascinating biography of David’s intense and fascinating life as told in the Old Testament Books of Samuel, there’s a story about the last days of King David’s loyal friend Barzillai.
Barzillai was a wealthy man from Gilead. He had shown King David hospitality and provided his army provisions in a time when few people dared to stand by David because of an uprising led by the king’s own son Absalom.
Now at the age of 80, Barzillai went with David to escort him over the Jordan River, where David would regain power and wage a national revival.
David said to his loyal friend at the riverside, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you in Jerusalem at my side.”
Here’s how that went according to scripture:
“But Barzillai said to the king, ‘How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? . . . Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? . . .
Please let your servant return, so that I may die in my own town, near the graves of my father and my mother.” (See II Samuel 19:31-37)
Barzillai was at peace with his personal end times. He was plenty ready to return to his hometown in order to “go home” in the spiritual sense.
It’s hard to let go of our beloved parents and others as they near the end, but there comes a time when one is too spent to “rage against the dying of the light.”
And why rage against it anyway. I’ve always said that God brings us into the world with our kicking and screaming and adjusting our tiny eyes to the light. But God in God’s tender mercy takes us back home gently as the body steadily shuts down. As it does so, one has no more desire or need for food or water and pain dissipates into peace.
A natural death can be, and should be, a “good death”–a death in which one can naturally “go gentle into the good night” of perfect rest, perfect peace.
*Note: In signing up for hospice care, patients or families are asked if they want “spiritual care visits” from a chaplain. Because chaplains provide “spiritual care” and not necessarily Christian care, a Christian chaplain sometimes visits people of other religions or no religion at all; the aim is to be a “listening, nonjudgmental presence” to someone in grief.
I’ve prayed many times with Jewish patients, Muslim and Buddhist and Hindu patients–even atheist patients who, when asked them if they wanted me to pray for them, often said, “I guess it can’t hurt anything.”)
*(photo is from the aforementioned New Yorker Magazine profile of a hospice nurse. link here.)
* And here are useful facts about hospice care in a time when growing numbers of people are reaching the ends of their lives.