By Susannah Carr
Those who are dying teach us how to live.
I first learned the power of this truth years ago when I was serving as a hospice chaplain in Durham, North Carolina. A young minister in training, I was in my last year of seminary and was offered the opportunity to do a year-long residency with Duke Hospital that involved being the chaplain for a local hospice.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was no expert in the field of terminal illness or dying, I had never worked in a hospital setting, much less a hospice one, and I certainly was no expert on pastoral care and grief counseling with the dying. (Are any of us ever experts on such matters!?) But I trusted that God would lead the way into this new territory for me as I began to walk with dying patients and their families on this road of their lives.
What I learned along the way is that we ministers—and even the doctors and medical community—are not the experts on dying or even what a dying person needs. The dying person is the expert. They are our teachers. They teach us not only how to die well, but they teach us how to live—if we will listen.
I chose to listen, and this is what I learned:
DYING PEOPLE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THEIR DEATH.
People who are facing death are not so much afraid of death itself as they are the process of dying.
How will it happen? What will I feel? Will it be painful? Will I be aware of what is happening to me? How long will it take?
These are some of the most common questions the hospice staff and I talked to patients about in the months and days leading up to a person’s death.
Just as every life is different, every death is different; but, every death is important. So, how that death happens matters.
Dying people need to talk about these very practical but important issues as they face their death. Our tendency as their loved one is to think that talking about these things will upset them. To the contrary. They need and want to talk about them, because doing so helps take away the fear of the unknown.
Our culture is afraid of death. Even our medical communities, ironically, often avoid the conversation of death, coming to see death somehow as a failure on their part because of the modern medical technologies afforded us.
But death is a part of life. We see it every year in the natural world’s turning of the seasons. And yet, in our own lives and relationships, we avoid talking about death until or unless it is impossible to do so.
However, when a person is dying of a terminal illness, it is hard to avoid that conversation because the process of dying takes center stage in their life and the life of their family. So talk about it with them! They want and need to talk about it. Death is a part of life.
We can honor our dying loved one by giving them space to talk about their death. And in the process, they can and will teach us how to stop fearing and avoiding the reality of death.
A DYING PERSON NEEDS TO TALK ABOUT THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND THE LOSS OF THEIR DREAMS.
When a person is facing the reality of their death, the meaning of their life suddenly becomes very important.
Doing a “life review” by sharing stories of life and naming moments of accomplishment is vital to dying well: the children they have raised and love dearly, the ways they were able to provide for their family and friends, the differences they made for good in the lives of others, the things they are most proud of doing and being in their life—all of these things and more matter very much to a dying person and deserve a place to be spoken and honored.
Likewise for a dying person, the reality of dreams and goals that will not come to pass is very painful, and they need a space to give voice to this pain and grieve in order to let it go.
As a hospice chaplain and parish minister, I have spent many important hours bearing witness to the pain that comes in dreams that will never be realized—walking a daughter down the aisle, holding a first grandchild, taking that retirement trip around the world with a spouse, or finishing a college degree. Dying people need a place to talk about the loss of life goals and dreams that we often take for granted in our life—unless we are facing our death.
A DYING PERSON NEEDS TO SAY “I’M SORRY” AND “I LOVE YOU.”
Peace is what we all seek in life, but for a person who is doing the work of dying, being able to have the peace of healed relationships is very important.
When a person is dying, there is no need or time for pretense. Dying people often feel an urgent need to “confess” what they consider to be their wrongdoings and to make right what is not right with those they love.
They need and want to have conversations with loved ones to say they are sorry and ask for forgiveness for things they have done that have been wrong and hurtful. They do not want to die without attempting to make right what needs to be made right because they have come to realize how precious relationships are.
They also have a deep need to tell the people they love what they have meant to them and to say “I love you” as often as possible. They are able to see what the rest of us often miss—that every day is precious and the people in our lives are God’s greatest gift of love to us.
We must not take those two things for granted….dying people show us this.
A DYING PERSON OFTEN NEEDS PERMISSION TO DIE.
Dying people need to know that their loved ones understand their need to let go and be at peace, but unless they hear that from those they most love, it is hard for them to do that final letting go in the dying process.
I have witnessed a dying person linger for days on end until they heard those small but powerful words from a loved one they needed to hear, “It’s okay. You can rest now. We love you, and we will miss you, but we will be okay.”
To give your dying loved one permission to die allows them the peace of knowing that you are going to be okay, that you understand and validate their need to be at peace, and that you honor that need.
It may be the single most important gift you ever give them.
I am tremendously grateful to God for putting me in such holy and sacred spaces with dying persons, young and old. It has helped me to understand that the most courageous people on this earth are those who are preparing to leave it. The work of dying is hard but necessary work. A life well lived is a life that is honored in the work of dying.
Those who are walking this journey have so much to teach us about how to live and die well, and, if we will listen, we can learn so much.
Reverend Susannah Grubbs Carr is a native Mississippian and an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, serving as senior pastor of Hawkins UMC in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Millsaps College and a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology from The Divinity School of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She is a Certified Pastoral Counselor and member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, a Certified Spiritual Director, a member of Spiritual Directors International, and she has her certification in Spiritual Formation through the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in the United Methodist Church.