This is part 5 in a series celebrating Pastoral Care Week 2015: Spiritual Care Together, October 25-31, 2015. Read part 1 of the series here. Read part 2 of the series here. Read part 3 of the series here. Read part 4 of the series here.
By Cassandra Wilson
People learn surprising ways to approach, address and cope with tremendous illness and disease, and we help to support and coach loved ones through illness. I find it amazing that in many cases, we have not explored how to support and journey with loved ones through their death.
When I sit with patients whose bodies are changing, weakening, giving way to the sickness or disease that is slowing changing their internal being, I listen to them asking that it be over, that they can go “home,” that God would help them. In those challenging hours, my heart is pulled and tugged to their cries. My understanding of life and living is wrenched from the charging forward mode to stop now and be in the moment. How I understand this part of life is critical. This is life—real life—a part of the living process. It is the part of life where some get to transition from active living to active dying.
This is also one of the critical times when families find it difficult to be cheerleaders for their loved ones.
How does one encourage the patient to move forward in the process of releasing life as we know it to transition to life beyond the tangible? I ponder that every time I see family members asking their dying parents, spouses and siblings to rally again, one more time. I see the anguish as spouses and parents asked their sweet one to “please stay,” and not leave them. My heart is so touched through these exchanges. The emotions of loss are not likely to ever go away, but I often wonder in all this emotion, could I along with the medical community help families to prepare for dying before the process begins? Could I ever really coach patients and families about the inevitable, unavoidable, eventuality of dying? Would knowing the process of end of life help individuals and family normalize end of life, much like we celebrate the process of conceiving life and preparing for a new one in our families?
When I think about my experiences with the deaths of my sister, my cousin, my father and then many others in my extended family, each one’s story and the occasion of their deaths was different. Each time, there was the shock that someone who belongs to me was taken away. There was the disbelief that something so unfair, unexpected and permanent tore open my life and my family. There was also the helplessness to turn back time, to stop the process and restore life back to normal. I had no control over the timing, over the changes that causes my loved one to die and I could not control their health and well-being.
From my religious teachings, spiritual belief system and family traditions, I know that everyone will eventually die. Nevertheless, the reality of death seems bigger than the preparation I had. It took a great deal of time and processing before I could acknowledge what was beautiful, gracious and amazing about the experience of death.
So when I consider how I can support and journey with loved one through their death, I recognize it will have to be tailored for individual circumstances and family situations. It would be a mistake for me to oversimplify the inevitability of death. Instead, amidst the anguish and helplessness, I try to help families find a vein of normalcy and reach toward hope. I encourage families to be at peace being present, sitting vigil, holding hands, giving verbal and nonverbal assurances of affection and appreciation, trusting that is enough to convey love and comfort. I haven’t developed a prescribed methodology for coaching yet, but I am grateful to be able to support and encourage with compassion and empathy.
Cassandra Wilson is a CBF-endorsed chaplain serving with Mt. Carmel Health Systems in Columbus, Ohio.