***Trigger warning: this blog post discusses topics such as death and grief, which may be triggering to some readers. Handle yourself with care.
I went to seminary later in life. You might say I was a "late bloomer." The year after graduation, I completed Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Florida Hospital Orlando where I learned to be a chaplain. My first job as a pastor was being a chaplain for a hospice in Naples, Florida. I've thought long and hard about what I would say about my time in hospice work. First, I would say that this was an incredible experience. “What?”, you ask. Yes. I met wonderful people and had amazing experiences with my patients, their families, and my co-workers...and I learned so much.
I learned that hospice was not about dying but about living well in the time that one has left.
I learned is that families either grow closer together during this time or they fragment even more so than they already are. Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is that the family makes it more about them than the one dying. This time should be about the person who is dying. If families can realize that and put themselves aside till after the death, there will be help for them in their grieving. This does not mean that we do not take care for the family, too. But it means that we honor the wishes of the dying. This begs the question: do you know what you want at the end of your life? Do others know your wishes? This makes a difficult time so much easier.
Another important thing I learned and another way to help families and the dying came from a book the chaplains read together. The name of the book was “The Four Things that Matter Most” by Dr. Ira Byock. Dr. Byock cares for the dying and says that there are four things that should matter most in all of life but should definitely matter most at the end of life. These are: I love you. Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. Most unresolved issues with the dying and their family and friends revolve around these four issues. Heck, most of life’s issues deal with these four. If we can live and die having said these four things to the people who matter most, we will live and die with fewer regrets and in peace and love with others.
The best thing that I have learned is that God is in control even in the dying. When life seems so out of control, it has been amazing to see God at work. I could tell you so many stories but I want to share a personal one with you. This happened with my best friend who died a few years ago now. I was there to take care of her and witnessed this personally.
My BFF was determined till almost the end that she was going to beat her fourth cancer. When she finally accepted hospice care, the nurse assigned to her was a former student. When this nurse had my friend for a teacher in first grade, she struggled to read. My friend was an amazing teacher and believed in this little girl. The next year, my friend was moved to teach second grade and she asked that this little girl be placed in her room so that she would have another year to work with her on her reading skills. God knew the big picture. This little girl would learn to read so that she could go to nursing school and take care of her teacher as she began to die. I love that God has the big picture and the little details accomplish his purposes.
The final thing I want to share with you is that death is a “thin place.” By that I mean that one second we can be together on this earth and the very next second we can be in the presence of God. Do you know how close this makes us to our creator, even in the living? I believe some of my patients have seen loved ones who have already died, perhaps there to help them cross over. I believe one saw an angel like those described in the Bible…the ones who are bigger and more awesome than we can imagine. (That is why angels always begin with, “Fear not.”) I believe God has provided comfort for those left on earth in crazy ways like birds at a window, deer in a back yard, a shoe horn in a new car. Miracles are all around us if we have the eyes to see.
God is so close to us in our living but sometimes we don’t realize it till we see God in the dying.
My prayer for you is that you live life to the fullest no matter whether you are living or dying, that you have a plan for your end of life, that you honor the wishes of those close to you and that others honor your wishes in dying, that you live each day in peace that comes from loving, forgiving and thankfulness, that you have eyes to see God’s miracles around you, and that you never forget God is in control of everything…God’s got the BIG picture even when we only have the view in the dim mirror.
About the Author: Elaine Thomas
Elaine lives in Tampa, Florida. She describes herself as a wife, mother, sister, teacher, chaplain and best of all- "bibi" (which means grandmother in Swahili) to Penda and Jasiri.