the fifth page for Tuesday, May 11, 2010
(My reflection is based on a recent real-life experience. Out of respect for the right to privacy of the people involved, no names are used. I also want the readers to know that I have sought, and received, the permission and blessing of the family involved, to tell this story.)
I was privileged to be part of an important moment this past weekend. I was on-call as chaplain for a local hospital, and received a request to visit with the family of a woman who had slipped into a coma, and was expected to die very soon. I have learned over the years that there are nurses, especially ones who work in palliative care, who are adept at identifying when a person is close to death. When that call comes from the hospital, it is good to move quickly.
The woman was at the end of a long and difficult fight with a number of ailments, including cancer of the liver. Her two adult children, themselves both grandparents, were with her. It was good to see how at ease they seemed in the room where their mother lay dying. They were taking turns holding her hand, and speaking to her. They spoke to me of being conscious that their mother was likely on some level, aware of their presence, and of their words.
From the moment I walked into the hospital room, I found myself remembering being in another palliative care room, a few years ago, at the moment that the person died. I had this feeling that the person had left the room. Not that they had ceased to be, but that they were just no longer there, in that particular place. They had, in the fashion of Elvis, “Left the building”.
I talked to the son and daughter about that previous time of leaving, because it seemed to me that there is hope in this- that our loved ones, when they leave us, go somewhere else. Where do they go? How does this transition happen? I do not have the kind of religious faith that includes definitive answers for those kind of questions. The kind of faith that is growing within me, and which I feel able to share, especially in times when it might be helpful, is in God who is in the midst of mystery.
One of my favourite poets on this subject is Bruce Cockburn, who wrote the following words on the occasion of the death of one of his fellow song-writers:
There you go
Swimming deeper into mystery
Here I remain
Only seeing where you used to be
Stared at the ceiling
'Til my ears filled up with tears
Never got to know you
Suddenly you're out of here
Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into darkness
Closer to the light
I read some other words that night in the hospital room, from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, in the Hebrew Scriptures, that remind us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven, and that there is a time to live, and a time to die. I held the woman’s hand, and offered her a blessing. I prayed with her son and daughter, that she would know that she is loved, and that God is with her, and that she is safe, and that she would know that it was okay, when it was her time, to die.
While we were praying, we were watching this woman closely. Her breathing had been laboured, and her mouth had been open, slack-jawed, distorting her face, and giving the appearance of anxiety. During the spoken prayer, she seemed to relax. Her mouth closed, her chest movements changed from the heaving action to a more measured pace. Her head nuzzled a bit into her pillow. Something had changed for her, it seemed.
At the end of the prayer I released the woman’s hand, and suggested that her son take it. I said my goodbyes, and let the son and daughter know that they could call me if they wanted me to come back in the night.
The son told me the next morning that about 15 minutes after I left, his mother died. This week I will have the honour of helping with her funeral.