The Good Friday daily life of a Hospice Worker...
As I shared with our staff on Wednesday, we experience the presence of Good Friday each day as we care for our patients. So often we hear the echos of Christ's final words...
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
"They don't really know how to take care of me," she shared as one of my patients talked about what it was like to surrender and to ask for help. The woman who had lived independently for decades was suddenly faced with the reality that she was no longer going to be able to care for herself.
"I have never asked for help," she continued. "I have had to tell myself, 'they don't know how to care for me, but I have no choice in this. They feel that what they are doing is right.'"
While the words of Christ were meant to let God know that the actions of God's creation would result in the death of God's son, they were spoken as a declaration. Surrendering to circumstances such as the loss of personal control is something all of us must face at some point and time in our life. The process of aging and subsequently our own loss of our ability to care for ourselves, will at some point leave us with no other alternatives.
"Today you will be with me in paradise."
To tell someone that they are "good enough," even for the Kingdom of God, is something that many people struggle to understand. The words of Christ to one of the men hanging next to him on the day that he was crucified reminds us all that the citizenship of heaven is open to everyone. Scripture shares that the man was a "criminal," and that he admits that his punishment is "just."
Years ago I met a man who had the word "Guilty" tattooed on his arm. He shared with me that he had murdered a man when he was "in his twenties." He talked about his life during the time of the murder, and that his life was surrounded by drugs, bad situations, and "dark times." As he continued, he asked me if I felt that God had forgiven him?
The hardest thing for any of us is to understand how God's grace, mercy, and the act of forgiveness works. We all struggle to understand how God unconditionally loves, when we conditionally love ourselves.
He shared that he had often thought of getting the tattoo, "Forgiven" on his other arm, but "couldn't."
"What would people think who know me best. It would be laughed at," he continued.
The promise of paradise is the reminder to any of us that God's grace in our lives is sufficient, and that as scripture reminds us, there is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God.
For those who care for God's children as they face life-limiting situations, the assurance of that forgiveness is something we are asked to convey. Providing the words are so important. Praying that they are received and believed are something else.
"Behold your son: behold your mother."
The need to know that those that we love will be cared for after we die is something that all of us understand. This last week I stood next to a bedside where I had just conducted a wedding. The couple had been together for over a decade and have two sons, but had never formerly been married. Following the ceremony, the father sat with his sons and shared his dreams for them. His hopes that in the future they would care for their mother, and that as they grew into men themselves, that they would remain faithful to God.
We buy life insurance, and prepare wills, but ultimately after our death, we realize that we have surrendered everything. We have no control over what happens after we are gone. The hope that those that we love will still have support is something that we have no guarantee over.
While Jesus died, he saw his mother, and before his last breath, he shared the need to ensure that his mother would be cared for.
Each day we encounter people who are doing this. Their last wishes are often the hope that life will move on after their death, and those that they love, will be cared for.
Recently I spent time with a man who had even gone so far as to replace every toilet in his house, as well as, a list of other home improvements. His wife and two children, "shouldn't have to worry about anything," he shared, "after I die. I've tried to think of everything."
He had set and accomplished many goals as he died, written his obituary, and even decided what he wanted his last days to look like. What he didn't count on was that the cancer that he battled would cause him to become someone very different. It was very difficult for his family to watch his personality change, and for him to become very angry., often frightening his children. It was not what he had planned.
About a month after his death, a package arrived at the home. In it was a video made by the man, sharing that he was sorry for leaving his family, and that he hoped that they were doing okay. It was his way of hoping that what he had hoped for had been realized.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Living with a terminal illness can also cause people to express feelings of being abandoned by God. The term, "Just a part of God's plan," can be painful, even when said with the best of intentions.
We live in an imperfect world, and when faced with someone who sees their illness as a punishment by God, or seen as God's silence, can be disheartening.
"I don't know why God is letting this happen to me."
These are some of the hardest words that I encounter. It is not isolated. I think for any of us, we have experienced times when the presence of God seems to be non-existent.
None of us know what "God's plan," is for anyone, including us. When we have only the human condition to use as an example of support for one another, the reality of God's presence can, and often leaves us asking, "Why?"
Books have been written about why bad things happen to good people, and living through our own pain, but bringing ourselves to the belief that God is always present, even when we don't sense God's presence, can be difficult for any of us. Sometimes we must be intentional about reminding others that God is still there.
The reality that our bodies will let us know when "we are done," is often the hardest on those who are providing care.
"Mom hasn't eaten anything since Monday."
"I tried to get her to drink a little water, but she can't swallow."
Watching someone you love die is by far one of the hardest realities any of us might face. Hearing the words, "I'm thirsty," only to realize that the person can no longer swallow, can lead to despair and heartache for those who are near.
Watching an ice cube melt on the lips of someone who can no longer swallow, as it circles, and drips away, leaves us knowing that at some point, we can no longer meet the needs of others. Moving from curing to caring for someone as they die is something that we face each day.
"It is finished."
I always try to ask, "What do you want your last day of life to look like?"
While I know that each of us have in the back of our mind some idea of what we would hope our death looks like, experiencing that day is something we can't truly plan for. The reality that we will succumb to a last breath, or a last dose of medication, a final word, and the reality that we will never open our eyes again, can leave us with anxiety and fear.
For me, watching someone surrender to death is filled with many feelings. Rarely do any of us get the opportunity to say the words, "It is finished." Our bodies are designed to provide a place for our spirits to dwell, and are the home to the breath of God.
Years ago my grandmother wrote in her Bible, "The important thing in life is not to conquer, but to fight well."
In hospice circles we talk about someone's death in the terms of "dying well."
It is our hope that we all will be able to declare when our life is completed.
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
The final moment that we let go is the greatest unknown that we will experience since the day that we were born. Trusting that the last breath we take will be met with our next in a new place is what our faith represents. It is the reality that the God of all creation waits on us.
Even before our last day of life, we slowly learn that ultimately our life is not our own. Even for the most controlling of people, the willingness to relinquish our life can be a struggle.
I have watched people live in silence for days before finally dying. Often when this happens, I have heard people say, "They had a lot to work through."
Again, I have also heard the words, "It was just God's timing."
Each day I try to even start my own day asking that God lead, not me. For any of us, today might be our last day of life. Time and time again I hear, "There is no guarantee of tomorrow."
It's as if we are giving God permission to have a presence in our life.
Jesus' final words are the declaration that his life is complete. They are a reminder that even at the moment of our death, God continues to care for us.
The daily life of those who work with people who are dying never becomes "just another day." The experience of Good Friday should never become, "just another day in the church."
As we consider the life of Christ, his death, and soon, the resurrection, our own life is moving closer to our own death, and the moments when we may find ourselves living out each of these words.
Rev. G. Todd Williams lives in the Houston metro area and is a Hospice Chaplain and ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.