I’ve only watched a few people pass away, but it’s always hard and not in the ways I expected.
It takes a long time. Much longer, usually, than we expect. It’s like childbirth in that way, and there’s something amazing in the fact that for a lot of people we leave this life as slowly as we enter it.
So when I get an email from the daughter of a congregant saying that she and her brother are rushing to their mother’s side to spend her last days with her, I don’t panic. In fact, by the time I arrive at the nursing home, my congregant looks pretty good to me. I’m no doctor, but she doesn’t look like she is dying. She’s hooked up to the oxygen tank, propped up on her pillow, and breathing shallowly. But her color is pretty good for 91, and she is speaking in full sentences, and knows who she is and who I am and where we are and that her husband, of whom she speaks with wistful tears, is neither alive nor in the room with us.
Her son, looking worried as he clutches her hand, tells her not to ‘go’ yet– not before his sister can arrive. I don’t have the heart to tell him my prediction: that it will be a while yet before she goes anywhere, that this will get longer and worse before it ever gets better. But I’ve sat with my congregant through increasingly frequent visits, and I know how tired she is, how frustrated and unhappy, how trapped she feels in her body. I know what she’s rasping, trying to tell him now: that she wants–has wanted to for a long time–to die. She tells him not to be sad but to let her go when it’s time, and he nods, and she relaxes a bit, but my stomach clenches because I’m no doctor, but I’ve seen this part and her wish isn’t about to be granted. Not yet.
And then, after conversations about the weather and the news and the great-grandkids, it’s time for me to go, and before I do, I face the hardest part. The prayer. As I take each of their hands, I’m weighed down again by the frightening responsibility of this moment, this line-straddling ministry to two people with deep and different needs. The one wants me to offer a prayer of healing, physical healing, to help his mother be strong and vibrant and see her great-grandbaby take his first steps. The other wants a prayer of release, a sending forth, a request for God’s angels to gather her up before she suffers further, to take her home now, to her husband and her Jesus and her blessed rest. I tend to side with my congregant, but the distance of being her pastor and not her child affords me this.
And here I sit with a theology that says I can’t really request that God make anything happen. Still I pray:
Loving God, thank you for R and for the wonderful gift of her time with us. Thank you for the joy she brings to our lives and the lives of everyone who loves her. Thank you also for the people who give her joy, those who love her, past and present. We pray today for strength for R in her body and in her spirit. Strength to find whatever healing there is in this time and place, strength as she waits to come home to you when she’s ready. We pray for courage for her family as they support her and love her and surround her in care. Mostly, God, we pray for peace. Peace for R in her body as the pain fades away, peace for her family in their hearts as they wait with her, and peace for R in her spirit as she finds her true peace in you. As in all places, help us know that you are here with us, granting your peace. Your peace. Amen.
I left my cell number with the family and the nursing home and the funeral home, telling them that I will be back in town early next week. But truthfully, I expect the vigil will still be going on Tuesday when I return. I expect there will be many more times to offer a prayer like that. I expect her children may even come to a place where they too can openly and honestly pray for their mom’s release, and I know what that means. Tremendous pain. Tremendous peace. Never one without the other. Until then, rest easy, grandma. You’ll see your beloved soon.