News flash – someday you will die. There will be a moment when you will transition from this life into the next.
Some never get the chance to say goodbye. A sudden death.
Many long for the day, possibly having lost their independence, and needing specialized care for months or even years in a facility. They plead with God daily for the end to come.
Others, reeling with emotional vertigo brought on by sobering news, do their best to brace themselves for the decline.
The last two scenarios are the context for my work. Since 2018 I have been a team member, as a Hospice Chaplain joined with Nurses, Medical Social Workers and Home-health Aides. Together we seek to bring comfort care and quality of life, both for the individual and for their loved ones.
And on a few occasions I have been present for that sacred moment, often referred to as end of life.
John was admitted to hospice care on a Wednesday, which I attended along with our admission nurse and a social worker. His daughter was present and signed the consents; John sat on a couch in his apartment and answered a few questions. Troubled by his breathing – wheezy and with a slight whistle – he finally went back to bed. I decided that a return visit the following week was a good idea.
Monday had barely begun when I received an early call from our registered nurse case manager. John was actively dying, and his granddaughters were requesting me to visit. They both worked at the Assisted Living Facility where he resided, and I knew one of them.
He was unresponsive when I arrived, lying in bed with his head slightly elevated, flanked on either side by his granddaughters. Although I was engaging them in conversing, I was also concerned about John’s discomfort.
You and I take about twelve to twenty breaths every minute. I timed his respiratory rate to be approximately forty, with very shallow breathing. I stepped outside his room in order to contact our nurse, who decided to come. But she also planned to call the facility nurse with instructions to administer John’s prescribed medications.
Returning to his room, I decided to sing a couple of hymns, beginning with a familiar one: It is Well With my Soul. When I had finished, the nurse gave him his dose of pain meds.
I had learned during admission that for decades John had sung baritone in the choir at a local Lutheran Church. I concluded that he would know a most appropriate song for the occasion, Abide With Me, which is a unique hymn – a prayer uttered by someone dying, recognizing his dependence upon the presence of God. Here is the final verse:
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me
As I was singing this section of the hymn, John’s respiratory rate dropped to a normal level. Although surprised by the sudden shift, I continued singing until the finish.
I decided to recite Psalm 23 before praying and blessing him. Just after I had finished saying the glorious sentence in the middle (quoting the traditional translation) – Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me – John stopped breathing.
As I concluded the remaining verses of the Psalm, John took two more breaths. And then another. His last.
It was an honor for me to pray in the presence of his granddaughters and our nurse, who had arrived, acknowledging together that we were releasing him into God’s hands. As I frequently do, I placed my hand upon his forehead and offered the long-cherished benediction of blessing from Numbers 6.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace, both now and forevermore. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I saw his granddaughter frequently in the months following; she served as the receptionist in the Assisted Living Facility. Having shared in this moment together, it forged a bond between us. One time she shared with me that it had changed her forever, renewing her faith in God.
Why have I shared this story? Two reasons.
We do well to remember that we are all in Assisted Living. We are not machines whose batteries are eventually depleted and we die. We are living beings who have the breath of life in us, and we are assisted daily with the gift of inhalation … until the day that we take our last breath. But even there is the promise of a new life, with a new breath given from God.
We do well to pray Point me to the skies, just as the hymn Abide with Me directs us. Both in life and in death, looking up helps us keep a proper perspective – about ourselves, and about God.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Isaiah 40:26
Benediction of Blessing
May you always remember who has given you the breath of life.
May you live with the assurance and comfort that even as you walk through the darkest valley, you have no need to fear, for the Lord is with you.
May you rest in peace, in the arms of your savior.
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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM
Opening picture: Balkhovitin, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Laser pointing to the stars: ESO/Yuri Beletsky (ybialets at eso.org), CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons