As an atheist, I shudder at the thought of a chaplain at my bedside when it’s my time to die. However, today I was privileged to listen to a truly profound and helpful chaplain guide someone close to me on “the business of dying.”
Shortly after being informed that she had very little time left, the chaplain arrived, and instead of a long dissertation on theology, endless prayers, or reading cliché bible verses, he merely accepted her word that she was confidant of her eternal life and moved on to the harder part, the present.
At first, I was concerned. He seemed pushy and inconsiderate. When he asked her what she was feeling, and she replied, “It is what it is,” he pushed, aggressively.
He led her through each possible emotion, explored them, talked about them, and acknowledged their validity. He said it was okay to grieve your own life, the disappointment, the lost time, the things that you will never be able to do, time with loved ones stolen. He asked about fear, not fear of the afterlife, but fear of the actual dying and fear about leaving loved ones behind. He validated all emotions someone might feel and empathized.
Next, he asked her what she wanted. He said she didn’t have to answer now, and that it didn’t have to be one big thing, but that she should think about that every morning when she wakes up and ask, “What do I want today?” He explained that he meant real things, good things like asking for a hug or asking to have a conversation about a memory or about what someone means to her. He encouraged her to go deep inside herself everyday to really get in touch with her heart’s desire. He said to not let these things go by undone. If she needs to say something to someone or just relive a memory with someone, ask for it. If she needed closure, to fix a relationship, or address a regret, she should have that conversation.
The chaplain told her that part of the business of dying was to celebrate the life she’s lived. He said to reflect on her life’s accomplishments, things she was particularly proud of, things she enjoyed, and things that she did right. He told her she lived a life that deserved acknowledgement.
He ended his counsel by asking her if she wanted anything else from him. She asked him to pray with her. He laughingly responded, “Is that what you want, or do you think that’s what I want to hear?” She said she did want it, and his prayer was beautiful, specifically saying that she was in control of her life and how she lived it to her last breath.
He was brilliant and profound, comforting and respectful. I thought, This is what a chaplain should do. So many times, I’ve heard the well-meaning pastor spout clichés and seemed more concerned with reinforcing religious beliefs than dealing with real emotions and concrete issues. I always cringed at the shallow recitation of the typical platitudes. Finally, a chaplain who knows what to say to the dying, what they need to know in their last days, what not to forget in the days to come. The compassionate and practical advice I heard today cut through all the nonsense of avoidance. People don’t need vapid dictums when they face the end of their lives; they need something real, something meaningful and honest to go about the business of dying. –Christina Knowles
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.”
Death has been on my mind lately. We see it every day in the news, pandemics, violence, cancer, but mainly it’s been at the forefront of my mind recently because my mother is dying. She is less than a month away from being 83 years old, so it is not surprising that she suffers from a variety of maladies due to age. I lost my father about a year and a half ago, and honestly, most of us (my brothers and sisters) did not expect her to live much longer after she lost him. They were together 61 years, and she took it pretty hard. He was the love of her life.
My mother is a strong believer in God and follower of the Christian faith, so she fully expects to be reunited with my father in heaven when she dies. I’m not so sure I share this belief, but I’m glad she has it. I do believe, however, that each person’s death is extremely important, and can be one of the most beautiful things we ever experience in our lives.
First let me preface this with a clarification of the kind of death to which I refer. I’m talking about the kind of death that is expected, somewhat drawn out, and is actually positively anticipated. Tragedies that steal lives long before their time suddenly with no preparation, no chance for goodbyes; those are terribly catastrophic, or deaths which come far too soon in a life yet unlived, those who should have had many more years to come. I would also like to clarify that I am not suggesting that people should needlessly suffer. But for those people who know their deaths are imminent, are able to put their affairs in order, say goodbye to loved ones, and whose pain is managed, the knowing, and even the experience, can be a gift.
Of course, I can only imagine since I have never been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but I have witnessed death first-hand and found it beautiful and profound for both the dying and those who were present in the end. I had the privilege of helping my husband care for his dying mother in her last days, and it was indeed a privilege. We often hear stories of people who want to avoid prolonged death, who say they do not want to be a burden, endure the humiliation of being incapable of doing even the simplest things for themselves, or do not want to put their relatives through that kind of pain. I can understand fear, fear of pain, fear of the unknown, fear of what the afterlife, if there is one, holds, but facing these fears could be the most important thing we’ve ever done. However, I do not understand the common fears regarding the humiliation and the burdening of loved ones. It’s simply not true from my perspective.
From what I have witnessed, knowing those who’ve died with loved ones nearby and from those who’ve cared for them, these fears are unwarranted. A dying loved one is not a burden, not in the slightest. It is hard, it is exhausting, it is painful, but it is also wonderful. Being present to hear those last words of wisdom or just words of love and to impart them yourself is precious beyond words. Caring for someone you love in the most intimate of ways, doing everything for them that they cannot do themselves is beautiful beyond comparison. There is nothing humiliating about it for the person receiving or for the person giving. Never in my life have I been so close to my mother as when I bathed her, never have I been so close to my father as when I spoon-fed him his dinner, never have I felt so much love flowing from me to another person through a simple act. The smile on the face of my mother as I bathed her, the smile on the face of my father as I fed him, tell me they felt the same. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world.
And then there are the words. For days before my father died, my whole family sat by his side, hanging on his every word, knowing whatever he said in those moments, knowing he could go at any moment, would likely be the most important things he would ever say. He spoke to each of us individually, saying what he loved about us, calling us by our special names. We asked him questions, things we knew we’d never have another chance to ask. Moments of incoherence happened, yes, but those about to die have surprising moments of clarity as well. I am honored to have been there for his last days.
My mother has had many close calls, so we are always hesitant to start the process of acceptance. Right now she has congestive heart failure; her heart rate drops to 20 and goes back up. She is refusing any care except comfort measures. She is ready to go be with her love. Knowing it can be any time is a gift. We don’t waste a moment. Sitting by her side, I ask her to tell me the stories of her childhood, to clarify things for me so I can have an accurate memory of her life. She enjoys this as well, recounting a life well-lived. Mostly I get to hold her hand and talk about how much I love her and how she has always been the best mother anyone could have.
I think death can even be this way for younger people with terminal illness although it is infinitely more unfair and tragic. I also know what it’s like to lose someone long before they should go, and what it’s like to be left behind. I know what it feels like to grieve so long it seems you’ll never stop. But knowing when, or approximately when we will die, makes us zero in on what’s important; it magnifies every moment, it makes every word precious and every touch significant.
Brittany Maynard, recently in the news for choosing a date to end her life to avoid a long drawn out and painful death in hospice care, says she would rather “die with dignity.” Although I support her right to make the choice and understand wanting to avoid the worst, I think it is a mistake. There is nothing undignified about dying surrounded by loved ones in hospice care. Her loved ones don’t care about her “singed off hair” and they would be able to keep her comfortable. However, I do believe it is her choice.
This may sound strange coming from someone who isn’t even sure if there is an afterlife, but I know if there is a heaven, my mother is surely going there, and if there isn’t, she’ll never know, so she won’t be disappointed. As for me, I don’t hold out hope to see my loved ones again after this life, which is all the more reason why I cherish every moment with them and treasure the privilege of helping to care for them; witnessing the so-called undignified—it couldn’t be further from the truth. And hopefully when I am very old and my death is just around the bend, I will remember that the very fact that there is someone willing to care for me through till the end is the very definition of dignity, and I will participate in every profound moment of my dying experience without guilt or reservation.—Christina Knowles