I was sitting next to my dad’s hospital bed. The lights were dimmed, curtains slightly drawn. The scent of sanitiser intermingled with hospital food aromas filled the air. Such a clinical setting. Not the ideal scene for my last memories of my dad.
Death knocking on the door
He never wanted to spend his last days in a hospital. He had such an aversion of them ever since the death of my brother 13 years ago. It brought back the memories of witnessing a young body folding under the weight of cancer. My dad also dreaded the dependence on others, personified by the nurses and carers who needed to assist him with personal hygiene and activities of daily living. He used to be such an independent man up to a year or so ago. Losing his physical independence and personal space was the great fear that became his reality.
My dad’s mouth was open as if to grasp more air. His breathing was soft and shallow. The paleness of his skin a now-familiar sight over the last couple of weeks. I stared at this old man with skin tightly drawn over the thin lips. He barely resembled the dad I knew for the 48 years of my life. The dad who would show such tender smiles, such comforting hugs, such endearing laughs. The dad who had answers to life’s questions. The dad who showed forgiveness and compassion. Who taught me about humility, endurance and creativity. The dad who taught me to love nature and search for adventure.
Witnessing the decay of my dad’s health right at the end was heart-wrenching. This fading body still housed his soul, but barely so. Life suddenly felt so fleeting. And I had no power to lengthen or to shorten it. Could I hope for one more tender smile, one more coherent sentence, one more connection between father and daughter? Knowing time cannot be cheated. Knowing that it will be grace if God takes him, yet still begging for more time. I felt completely powerless and vulnerable…
Yet I did not feel alone. Praying, God’s presence was tangible. I could read the Bible to him and pray with him, sensing that he is taking in what I share. I was indeed sitting at the gates while the final moments of his life were playing out before my eyes. Surreal. Heartbreaking. Yet filled with peace. An oxymoron.
The one not dying
Sitting next to my father’s deathbed was not my first experience of death. My brother passed away at the age of 27 due to cancer. My father-in-law passed away in our house in 2016, also because of cancer. A few months later my mother passed away suddenly. In 2018, my beloved uncle died at a tender age of 63. Apart from my own experiences, I have had to support many people during and after losing loved ones as part of my responsibilities as a social worker in a hospital setting. So, I know what it feels like by now to sit at The Gates – and it’s not a place with comfortable seats.
Now the quandary. While we are still on this side of eternity, what are we to make of death? How does it all work? How do we support the one who is passing on? How do we deal with the loss of staying behind?
I have often contemplated these questions, but since my wounds are fresh and the object of these questions is personal, I’d like to share some of my thoughts now.
Question 1: What does the Bible say about death?
When God created humankind, He was pleased. There were unity and delight in the relationship between them. But Adam and Eve started seeking more, they wanted to be like God, and that broke the special bond between them. Their sin brought death into the world as punishment, but death’s sting would not last forever (Genesis 3:1 – 24).
Sinning against the Maker and therefore rebelling against His authority cannot go unpunished. His characteristics of Holiness and Justice would not allow for it. Someone needed to carry the punishment, if not man himself then another in his place. But this is where another of God’s characteristics – His Grace – comes in. In His wisdom, He offered Himself as a substitute in the form of His Son – fully God yet fully man – in carrying out his redemption plan (Romans 8:1; 1 Timothy 2:5).
With the price paid by the innocent Christ on the cross, the power that eternal death has had over mankind was broken. Now God and man could be reunited again. Jesus Christ has overcome death. One day when Christ comes to bring us to Him for eternity, there will be no physical death any more. In the interim we naturally have to experience physical death. But if we confess Jesus and love the triune God, we need not fear an eternal death (Romans 6:23). Physical death has only become the point where our Spirit leaves this earth and joins the multitude of heavenly creatures to be with God (Philippians 3:14).
Question 2: How can we support the one who is dying?
When we sit with so much pain and loss ourselves, it takes every fibre of courage to support the dying person selflessly. I don’t know if this is really possible from a purely human perspective. There might be unbelievers who find general grace from God to do that. I know in my case, the Holy Spirit comforts and gives me the strength to do what sounds humanly impossible. The Holy Spirit enables me and all of us who confess Christ, to put our pain aside and be with the one who is at the end of their lives (John 14:26).
My dad wrote an article on the topic of end-of-life support sometime earlier in his career. It is such a privilege to share some of his thoughts, as help to me and others, so closely after his own death. He especially emphasised the importance of teaming in this process, consisting of medical personnel, family and friends, carers, as well as pastoral help.
- Physical support. This might include medical treatment in hospital. Out of hospital, support organisations such as Hospice or professional care organisations might give support. Physical support at home might involve washing, dressing wounds, feeding and more, day and night – very taxing on those who are in this role.
- Psychological support. Coming to grips with the fact that one is dying, can be a surreal one. Some people are aware of the psychological process, but most people at the end of their life don’t see the wood from the trees. Their world becomes quite small, and they often focus on the immediate issues around them. Their attention would often centre around their own physical comfort/discomfort. It is a generalised view, of course, but human nature pulls most of us in that direction when death lurks.
- Financial support. Support during the end of life could be financially taxing. Extra cost towards frail care or carers, equipment, specialised feeds, nappies etc. adds to the bills. If a person cannot handle their own finances any more, legal processes need to be put in place to act on the person’s behalf. Posthumous plans also need to be considered.
- Pastoral support. The fear of actually dying is very real, even for Christ followers. People approaching the end might not have the ability to read their Bible or pray when they need it most. Being by their side, reading the Bible to them and praying on their behalf, becomes a very practical way of supporting them.
- Social Support. One should never underestimate the value of human connection. With my dad, we could literally see how his countenance lifted when we were there and showered him with love. Reflecting on his article, he also mentioned the value of compassion, physical touch, being quiet with the person, providing small talk, connection, love, as well as listening when needed. During this time, immediate family members also fill the shoes of extended family and friends by the bedside. That implies two-way feedback to the person dying, as well as to the extended social network. Having social support is necessary, but to those next to the bed, the toll trying to manage all the communication and social expectations from others can be heavy. During the Covid-19 restrictions, one of the saddest losses was the inability of close family members to give social support to their loved ones at their death beds.
- Administrative support. A lot of effort goes into the arrangements at the end of a person’s life. Financial matters, medical aid approvals, work or disability issues, the will, estate, assets and many other issues need to be dealt with. Supporting the person at the end of his/her life might mean that difficult conversations need to happen at awkward times. With Paul’s dad, we had to talk about signing a Will at a very inconvenient time months before his death.
Question 3: How can we find comfort in our grief?
This feels like the easy part to me, knowing where to run to in times of grief. But sometimes we get so caught up in the messiness surrounding illness and dying, that we forget to run to God. We end up feeling isolated and alone.
It is helpful to understand the phases one goes through during times of grief. The stages of grief as stipulated by Kübler-Ross, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The answer in healing from grief does not lie in understanding the process per se, but rather in knowing that through each phase, God will not leave you alone. He will help and comfort you.
There are some promises in the Bible which helped me during time of grief and loss. These might be helpful to you as well. Hold on to them as much as you can with prayer and supplication (Philippians 4:2):
- Do not be anxious because God cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)
- He helps the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3)
- He draws close to the weak and needy (Psalm 72:13)
- He gives us new strength (Isaiah 40:31)
- He gives us hope to aim for eternal life with him (Matthew 26:46)
- He gives comfort and help through the Holy Spirit (John 14:16)
- He brings comfort through the love, support and prayers of His Church and the people who love us (2 Corinthians 1:4)
- He guides us, we can trust in Him (Psalm 33:21)
In the end…
We are not meant to die
It wasn’t God’s intent
He has made us in His image
Yet here we are, lost and bent
Sin has made this ugly barrage
But, Christ’s redemption reigns,
Breaking open all the chains.
Now we can cling to hope.
Hope that death has lost its sting.
Hope in our Father’s glorious presence
Hope that we’ll with joy eternal sing
Hope in Him, that is our credence.