By: Toni Schaefer
People who are experiencing the advent of their own mortality, or that of a loved one, go through a profound experience, a solitary, yet communal one.
It is the communal aspect we can affect — all the while realising that this is someone else’s solitary journey. It is theirs, as it will be one day ours; but we can be companions on that journey.
Companionship does not happen just because we want it to. It is built on constancy and trust, which does not happen overnight. Sometimes we have time to build this companionable rapport with those we serve. At other times we are called at the last minute to minister at the person’s or the family’s request. I have been called by a family to pray for a person who only had hours to live, and, at other times, I have had months, even years to develop a relationship with those I served. We have all been there. Being present just at the end is a comfort to the family and it makes them feel like they are doing something to help or doing something from a need they have or a need they feel the dying person has and can’t express. There should be no judgement either way, remembering that this is their journey.
What we can keep in mind are questions for the person with whom we are interacting. “Do you want to talk about how you are feeling?” “Are there things you would like to talk about?” And eventually, something like, “Where does God fit into this for you?” Sometimes we don’t have to talk or ask questions at all. Sometimes just sitting quietly and being present, or offering the comfort of music is more effective. That is where building a relationship with the one you are accompanying on his or her last journey in life comes in.
“Would music be a comfort to you, and if so, what do you like most?” “What are your favourite prayers, psalms, and Bible readings?” I often think of Psalm 130 for the person may not doubt God, but their own goodness and worthiness. We need to assure such persons of God’s graciousness and forgiveness. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that they have tried to live a good life and that our Lord sees the effort and acknowledges that as well.
Study on our part is essential, but not just conventional study like the stages of grief. Joyce Rupp has a number of relevant books: Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems and Reflections for Every Season, The Cup of Our Life: A Guide to Spiritual Growth, May You Find Comfort: A Blessing for Times of Grieving and May I Walk You Home?: Courage and Comfort for Caregivers of the Very Ill. I’m sure others have been a benefit to you. A book I recently read, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, is a wonderful resource. Ministering to the family and friends is just as important at this time, so the questions and resources above apply to both.
At times we are only the catalyst. For example, as a community nurse, I once took care of a child with a fatal disease. I was in the home for a bit more than a year. During that time, her mother and I would chat. One day she told me that she hated the thought of her daughter’s death because her daughter would be in the cold earth and no longer experience the love and warmth of her family. I expressed my belief in God’s promise of an afterlife where we will be more loved, whole, and warm and enjoy the family of God. I also said that I knew that I could not give her my belief, but I wished it for her. I suggested she seek advice from the parish priest. The mother had been baptized, but the child had not. I left it at that.
A bit of time passed, and I cross-stitched a small picture of a vivid rainbow with the words, “Rainbows are for all God’s children,” for the child. I presented it to the mother and child on the child’s birthday. She thanked me for the gift and it remained at the head of the child’s bed until she died eight months later. I had to leave the family before the child died when the funding for the program ran out and the family could not afford to pay me on their own.
When the child died, she was buried from her church. I found out her mother had talked with the priest and the child was baptized. On the child’s gravestone are the words; “Rainbows are for all God’s children.” This ministry was to the mother. We keep family members and friends in mind as we minister to these followers whom we hope will finish well.
When you find yourself ministering to those who are dying and their families, be honest for people can spot a phoney and be constant for no matter how long the journey, we need to be available. Above all, remember that it is their journey and we are assisting. This is not about what helps us, it is about what helps them. Very few people do not turn to God at this time. Be there to assure, comfort and assist with knowledge and prayer and music, even rock music if that is what they like. We can and often do help followers finish well if we are truly companions on the journey.
Toni Schaefer is a former parish nurse of Knox Prebyterian, North Street United and St. Peter’s Roman Catholic churches, Goderich, Ontario