By Melissa McLaughlin
How is life treating you? How is work? How is the family? What are your plans for the weekend? How’s your sports team doing? Have you read any good books lately?
When catching up with family, friends, co-workers or neighbors, what do you usually talk about? How’s the weather?
With our closest friends, especially those who share our faith in Jesus, we may ask questions that go a little deeper. How has God been working in your life? Do you have any goals for growing closer to the Lord? How is your personal prayer time or Bible reading going? How can I pray for you?
We tend to vary the depth of our conversations and questions based on the level of intimacy shared. Regardless, even with our most cherished confidant or dearest family member, one of our least favorite topics to discuss is death. We may not mind talking occasionally or theoretically about death. Certainly, as Christians, one of our greatest joys is knowing that Jesus has won for us an eternal home in heaven, so death does not grip us with the same fear as those who do not believe in Jesus. Death does not have the final word for us. John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
However, as a general rule we would rather not discuss the impending death that each of us face, though death is our reality, as sure as the next breath we breathe. One day, our loved ones will die. One day, we will die.
Simply reading these words sucks the air right out of the room. At the thought of death, heavy gray clouds drift slowly in blocking the sunlight of our souls. Though we rejoice knowing one day we will be together with Jesus and all who have believed in Him, until that day we will surely miss each other on this side of heaven. Therefore, in the face of death, yes, Christians do have joy, though we endure a great sorrow in the missing.
How do we navigate this difficult reality of life – namely, death?
Recently, a beloved aunt passed away. Mercifully, we were able to visit with her on the last day before she died. These moments are sacred, when the veil is thin between this world and the next. Though we try to hold back the tears, yet they fall. We pray for peace, we pray for rest in the Lord, we pray for joy in looking forward to seeing Jesus. Yet the tears fall. As they should. Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. John 11:35 – When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” He asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they answered. Jesus wept.
What do we say at a time like this? It can be difficult to know the right words to say to family members who are grieving as they await the death of a loved one or after the person has passed. Sometimes we offer empathy, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Sometimes we strive for encouragement with phrases like, “They are in a better place.” “They are no longer suffering.” “They are with Jesus now.”
When we were blessed to visit our dear aunt before she passed away, we were able to share a short time together as a blessing to her, her loved ones and ourselves. We were able to tell her some ways she blessed our lives, pray, read a scripture and sing one of her favorite hymns, The Old Rugged Cross. Though she was not able to respond, we talked, hugged, prayed and sang anyway.
If you are facing the loss of a loved one or if the day comes for you, like it recently did for us, I offer you these simple thoughts.
1. The gift of conversation. If you are able, tell the person you love them. Tell him or her one example of how they blessed your life, whether a treasured memory, a time they helped you or special moment you shared together.
2.The gift of praying aloud. If you are able, pray aloud with the person. Thank God for His goodness. Even in times of suffering, we can remember God’s goodness to us for He sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins and to win us for heaven. That is a greater goodness than anything we can have in this life. Thank God for the loved one. Thank God for all He has done in their lives. Thank God for the people who have helped care for the person. Ask for His peace, comfort and strength to cover each one who is affected. Thank God for Jesus who holds us now and forever.
Another idea for prayer is to say The Lord’s Prayer aloud together. (Found in Matthew 6:9-13 – Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.)
3.The gift of reading a scripture aloud. If you are able, read or if you know from memory, say a scripture aloud. The Bible, God’s Word, has a power and strength that our words alone do not. Psalm 23 is certainly a favorite in moments like this. It is also a wonderful scripture to read aloud because most people are familiar with this chapter or at least have heard the passage at some point in their lives. Psalm 23 gives comfort and hope in times of deepest suffering. Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
4.The gift of singing a hymn or worship song. Whenever possible, try to sing a favorite Christian hymn or worship song. If their favorite is unfamiliar, you can search for it on your phone to play and sing along. Music is an important tool for comfort and healing as it is stored in a deeper place in our soul memories. Many times people who suffer from memory loss and cannot remember anything else, can still sing along or hum along to a favorite hymn.
5.The gift of touch. Try to put your hand on the person’s shoulder, hold their hand, kiss their cheek, stroke their hair. The gift of touch makes your presence real and brings a soothing physical comfort that goes deeper, reaching to a person’s mind and heart.
6.The gift of your presence. If you cannot find the words to speak, pray or sing, just be present, holding the person’s hand and whisper “I love you” if you can. The gift of your presence is a profound gift. At times, a person’s illness or death may be unexpected, the person considered too young for such or their absence leaves vulnerable loved ones behind to struggle alone. Sometimes for reasons we cannot explain, there are no words. In moments like that, the gift of our presence is still a gift. Even in the silence, as we sit with the one facing death or the ones left behind, the gift of our presence speaks its own quiet message from the heart. The gift of your presence is felt deeply and remembered long.
7.When you cannot be present, the gift of your prayers is a gift. Sometimes we cannot be physically present with family or friends who are suffering, dying or grieving. We can still send a card, make a phone call or pray. Jan Karon, author of the Mitford series, has a quote that remains one of my favorites, “We don’t pray to do the greater work. Prayer is the greater work.” When we pray for someone, we connect earth with heaven. Through our prayers, God can release resources like peace, comfort and strength that we cannot supply by any means of our own.
What if the person is not responsive? What then?
I encourage you to treat the person as if they can hear every word you speak and feel every touch you give. Why? Let me tell you…
I was once told the most remarkable true story by our respected elderly pastor. Though in his senior years, he recounted this miraculous experience from his youth. He was just a teen at the time, maybe 18 or 19 years old, not yet a pastor, not yet even considering becoming a pastor, when all of a sudden his aunt went into a coma due to a sudden injury and illness. He went to visit her in the hospital. As he stared at her still body, no response, no talking, no body movement, no eye movement, completely still, barely breathing, he was at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to expect. He didn’t know what to say or what to do. So he opened his Bible, read Psalm 23 and said a brief prayer. Still no response, so he left her room and drove home. Shortly after he left, his aunt died. Her body was moved to the hospital morgue and tagged for processing and final service preparations. After her body lay lifeless in the hospital morgue for about 20-30 minutes, to everyone’s surprise his aunt miraculously came back to life! Sometime later, when she had returned to her regular activities, she told him, “When you came to visit me in that hospital room, while my body lay still but for the breath of life, though I never moved a muscle, I heard every single word you said. Every. Single. Word. Don’t you ever forget that.” According to the pastor, he never did. To that day, whenever he visited with patients at home or in the hospital who appeared unresponsive, he spoke and interacted with them as if they were taking it all in.
Though this dear pastor himself has now gone on to heaven, I have never forgotten the story he told me about visiting his aunt that day. I carry his miraculous wisdom with me. Now that you know his story, I invite you to carry his miraculous wisdom with you, as well.
Let us treat those sacred moments when loved ones are sick, unresponsive or close to death, as the most precious moments of life. Let us speak as if they hear, touch as if they are touching back, pray as if they pray with us, read as if they are listening and sing with whatever strength we can muster, knowing that in their hearts they sing with us, too.
Do you have experiences of walking with loved ones in their final moments? What thoughts or suggestions can you share? Please join the conversation.
Last but not least, maybe, just maybe, we should consider starting up these conversations of life and death or the “time between times” as discussions we can have right now, before the moments are taken from us. Though we prefer to focus on matters of life, when we converse about death in Jesus, we are actually reminding each other about life eternal. Yes, we cry for the missing now, we cry for the ending of this chapter and we cry for the longing of what will be. Though we cry… let’s talk, shall we?