“When it comes to dying, I’m an amateur. I haven’t done it - I think when I come to it, I will still be an amateur, somewhere between frightened and terrified.” (Sam Keen, Graceful Passages)
Bingo! Sam Keen speaks to a reality that bypasses some of the death- denying language of our culture and our churches and places of worship; the language of: “Don’t be afraid, let your faith carry you through this passage in your life,” or “Don’t be afraid, we’ll be with you all the way.”
Both statements can be comforting, and both, in my experience, speak to a truth. But neither they, nor any other statement, can change the reality that death, even for people of faith, arrives for most with fear and terror at some level of their being.
It is only when the fear and terror is mitigated by allowing the person to process their feelings, that a person becomes free to allow her/his faith to inform the dying process. Any hint of judgment in our comment (“You must use your faith” kind of statement) often adds a level of guilt to the one afraid. The individual then has to wrestle with, “What is wrong with me, I know better than to be afraid.”
More helpful than judgment is asking helpful questions of the one dying and making statements that invite exploring the person’s deepest concerns.
I wonder about what you’re feeling. Do you want to talk about that?
Is there anything I can do or say to make this time easier?
I am willing to listen. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have the time to listen. Maybe that will help.
There may well come a time when a loved one, or anyone for whom you are caring, invites you to share your faith and what it says about their dying. In my work with the dying (nearly every day for the past thirteen years, and often during the forty years I pastored a congregation), I have been moved by the opening of faithful witness when I have been willing to invite and wait for a response.
People, even those closest to us, are all too willing to engage with that subject, but seem to do so on their own schedule. That most often happens when they feel safe speaking of anything, including their fears and terror, without being judged or having their feelings diminished.
So a word to those caring for or about someone of any age who is dying - the gift of willingly listening to their fears and worries is most important. When the time is right, share the good news that even with their fears, God is there for them to guide them on their way.
About Jim Stinson
I first became an ordained member of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church fifty years ago. Through my time with the pastoral ministry, I worked extensively with older adults, many of whom were members of my congregation. I also served as the Director of Spiritual Life for United Methodist Homes from July 2002 until my retirement in July 2015, providing guidance and support to residents, family members, and staff. I love reminding people that “old” is not a dirty word and encourage others to adopt a healthy perspective on aging. I am also the author of a book, Just Because I Am Old – A Practical and Theological Guide To Caring, which was recently published in 2014.
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