Working on “Loose Ends:” Four things to say at life’s end

By Chaplain Gordon Ruddick, Hospital Chaplain

She was a lot like many older patients I have talked with at end of life. She said she was eighty-four and did not think she had much time to live now. Often such patients are quick to share their strong personal faith in God and their confident expectation of “going home to be with the Lord” when they die. And she indeed forcefully shared those words. Hers is a faith language I understand and speak fluently.  I offered to sing with her. We actually sang parts for a couple of classic songs, including the one most requested – “In the Garden.” 

This visit was very familiar to me up to this point. But then one question changed everything. She said, “How do I say goodbye to my children?” Now she had my attention. I thought for a moment before answering. We had moved from her own personal faith to her position as a parent. As a mother. And there in the room was one of her children, buried in a blanket, sitting back on the sofa cushion that had been acting as her bed. No words, no looks from her. No seeming interest in being included in this conversation. But she was there. And she was listening. Where would I be going with my answer to her question? I sensed a lot of hurt. It almost leaked out from underneath the blanket. Like a clammy puddle.

“Have you ever heard of the term closure?” was my choice for continuing our conversation. She had heard of it. We went on to discuss the concept of “tying up loose ends” that we all have with friends and relatives. In that way we can have a more comfortable death, knowing we have said and heard what was needed for us and those connected with us. She was interested in what this might include. I recalled a conversation I had recently had with a colleague regarding this exact subject. I remembered us talking about four things (if I remembered correctly!) that needed to be said before we die. Honestly, though, I was not sure I remembered the correct order. I decided that was not the most important thing in this conversation. And so I started as she quietly listened.

“I love you. . .please forgive me. . .I forgive you. . .good bye.” Not that quickly, of course. But those were the four things or subjects.  Turned out the first one was going to be hard for her. “I grew up in a (and then she mentioned a European country) home where we did not talk about emotions at all.”

“And so I am going to guess that you were not often told you were loved, nor were you comfortable saying that to your children as well, right?”

A tiny nod I almost could not see. But it was there. How sad, I thought, to be able to refer to our strong love and feelings for God and not for our own family. I could feel a palpable radiation of frustration and loss from the daughter. I did not need to look her way to confirm. We all three knew this to be a source of a great deal of hurt for both of them.  This was an awkward time for all three of us, I imagine. I am aware that many of this patient’s generation had gone without any kind of validation or affection, often for their entire relationship, or lack thereof, with their own parents. Nurturing was sadly often absent.

What would it help to hear those words now if they had not been spoken when they were so achingly needed at a younger age? I have heard first-hand the frustration of adult children who wondered why this had to happen at the death bed. WHY COULDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT BEFORE NOW?? But I also know hearing late is better than never hearing.

I knew some hard work needed to happen in that room that day. I would “leave the tools in the room” so they could hopefully, if awkwardly, make an attempt at using them. And if things went well they might break down and share some actual feelings and forgiveness. This was between them. I prayed for them before I left. When I stood up the daughter looked at me with a very intense gaze. I walked over to her and quietly said, “Can I give you a hug?” She stood up and received a tender embrace. There were tears present. I quietly whispered that the two of them had some important work to do. I asked for a commitment to attempt, knowing this was important for her. “Risk for your own sake.” She gave me a small nod and a thank you. I quietly left, praying silently on my way out.

How did that end? I do not know. I have not seen the patient again. She left the hospital for a facility the next day. My role as chaplain is varied. In this case it was pretty much “Emergency Intervener.” I can only suggest where their path might be. I cannot walk it for them. My prayer is that they were able to finally break the silence, bridge the gap, and find some measure of closure at the end of life.  Oh, and Lord, help me to remember to say what I need to say to the ones that need to hear it at times that it helps the most. I must start with me!   

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Join me in thanking God for wise and willing chaplains like Gordon, who listen to the Spirit’s leading in the critical moments of hospital ministry.  While you’re at it, ask God to guide all our 200 CBAmerica chaplains – civilian and military – as they meet people today on the battlefield of life.

For more stories by and about chaplains ministering on the cutting edge, go to http://cbamerica.org/category/chaplaincy/.  For information on what it takes to be endorsed for chaplaincy, email Andy Meverden, Director of Chaplaincy at chapandy@cbamerica.org.

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