Present at Their Passing

When I was present at the first death, I was 17.

At the second, I was 32.

At the third, I was 44.

At 17, I sat by my grandmother’s hospital bed at the end of a long and painful recurrence of her cancer. My aunt held one hand and I (her only grandchild) held the other. We wept silently as her breathing became more ragged, until she was mercifully released from her prison of disease at about one in the morning. She was the matriarch of our family and had a great influence on my entire childhood. Losing her, at the age of only 59, was a tremendous blow; our family shattered after this event and never really recovered.

At 32, pregnant with my second child and having spent the last year and half caring for my grandfather after his stroke, I arrived breathless at his bedside about 11:00 a.m., where my mother was already present. I could hear in his breathing that he wasn’t long for this world. Although he had been sedated for pain relief (thank you, hospice care), he became unusually lucid moments in his last moments. As we watched and held his hands, his eyes opened wide and he gave a startled gasp—not of pain or fear, but of surprise. Then he was gone … the dear man who had been like a father to me for my whole life.

At 44, I left the four kids with my husband and drove one last time to the hospital where my mom had been admitted more than a dozen times in the past year. She was very sick—worse than usual, even for her—and I (her only child) asked the hospice doctor if we could possibly move her across the parking lot to the more comfortable hospice building. He said she would likely go into cardiac arrest during the transport and the EMTs would be required by law to restart her heart, no matter what the consequences to her frail and dying body. So I chose to stay with her in the hospital room instead. I sat by her that Thursday evening, and then, thinking I was in for a long night, I moved to a more comfortable chair across the room. If I could undo one thing from that evening, it would be that move … my mom breathed her last around 8:00 p.m., without me right next to her, without her hand in mine. I regret it to this day.

I honestly don’t know how common a life experience it is for a person to be present at the actual passing of a loved one. Because I’ve been in this situation three times, it seems a natural part of life to me, to help usher family members from one world to the next. And the experience has been both a privilege and an honor every single time. But looking back, I realize now that it could, and perhaps should, have been more—and not just for me, but for the person whose hand I was (or wasn’t) holding.

I know that my very presence with them was important. Reminding them of my love for them was important. Ensuring their physical comfort was important. But my being present in the days, hours, and moments before a loved one’s death also presented a unique opportunity to talk about Jesus and remind them of (or tell them about) the hope of heaven. When I was 17, at my grandmother’s death, I wasn’t a Christian, but at my grandfather’s and mother’s death I was … and yet my tongue was tied and I didn’t come through for them in the ways that I could have. I’ve mentioned before in my writing that my family did not, under any circumstances, discuss religion or God or Jesus with one another. Because of this lack of communication, I’m not one hundred percent sure my relatives were saved. I’m not sure where they are today … I hope and pray that they’re with Christ in heaven, but I honestly don’t know.

But (and oh, how I hate to admit this) the fact remains that I didn’t address the subject of the afterlife with them at all. I failed to offer the comfort of Christ in a more intentional way when I had the perfect opportunity to do so. I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to talk to my grandmother about Jesus at the time, but I could have recited Psalm 23 to my grandfather, which he certainly would have recognized. I could have sung an old Baptist hymn that my mom would have remembered from her childhood, or talked with her about the hope of heaven and about how much God loved her. I could have spoken of the gospel of Jesus Christ, out loud, to my religion-is-a-private-matter relatives. And I think they would have been open to my talking about it, and actually have been grateful for my willingness to speak.

But I didn’t do it, and I’ve often thought about why, both for by own future benefit and also to encourage others who may find themselves in a similar situation with someone who is dying. Partly I think that I honestly didn’t know what to do, that I was overwhelmed with the moment and I didn’t understand or remember that spiritual comfort was called for. That, combined with the fact that I’d literally never had a conversation regarding religion with any member of my family, had me tongue tied. I may have also been reluctant to imply to them that they were dying—it was an uncomfortable topic we’d never spoken of out loud. Or maybe I was scared that I’d say the wrong thing, or afraid to talk out loud about God or Jesus in the presence of nurses or other people.

Any or all of those things could have caused my reluctance to speak, but thankfully, none of those things would stop me today—I know this in my heart. If God ever again grants me the privilege of sitting by the side of one who is on the cusp of death, I look forward to sharing the redeeming love of Jesus and the hope of heaven at that tender moment.

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2–3)

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Resources on heaven, death, and dying

Last year, a friend texted me in the last days before her sister passed away and asked me if I knew of any devotions that specifically talked about heaven, that she could read aloud at the bedside. I gave her a couple of ideas but I wished at the time that I could point her to something more helpful and specific that would be a blessing to both her and her sister. Something like the article, “Meet the Resurrected You,” by Randy Alcorn (who has written extensively on heaven in a very approachable and understandable way; see also his book, Heaven).

After I was twice forced to navigate the extremely frustrating and confusing conventional healthcare system on behalf of my grandfather and mother (hospitals, nursing homes, emergency rooms, ambulances, privacy laws, powers of attorney and other advance directives) versus the blessedly simple and compassionate care of hospice, I read Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, and found a medical professional who seemed to actually understand a huge part of the problem. This book isn’t Christian or even remotely spiritual, but I think it’s spurred some changes in our healthcare system that used to ignore the basic humanity and care of the patient in favor of modern medicine’s capability to merely prolong life, no matter what the consequences.

Fortunately, there are also books that deal with end-of-life issues from a Christian perspective, and Departing in Peace: Biblical Decision-Making at the End of Life, by Bill Davis, is one of them. End-of-life issues are very difficult topics for many, and Christians are no exception (maybe we should find death much easier to think and talk about than non-Christians, but in my overall experience, we do not). This book may help with that.

Image by Lars Nissen from Pixabay

10 thoughts on “Present at Their Passing

  1. Thank you Rebekah. I’ve had similar circumstances where I think I failed those who were dying. Two excellent books on end-of-life care are:
    Between Life and Death by Kathryn Butler – from a Christian perspective
    and Extreme Measures by Jessica Zitter – non-Christian but very insightful. Both of these authors are medical doctors. I found Gawande’s book very helpful also. Do local churches address these issues? Have you ever heard a contemporary sermon on how to die? I haven’t. Odd because Puritan pastors were keen to prepare their people for dying.


    1. Thanks for those book recommendations – I’ll take a look. I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on this topic.
      In regards to failing those who were dying, when I posted this article on Facebook, a Christian friend who was a hospice social worker and has been present at many deaths reminded me that what was going on at the time of death had much more to do with the dying person and God than anything I might have said or failed to say. She assured me that my mere presence was of much greater importance than I might have have thought. That was very comforting to me and a good reminder that God’s purposes are accomplished whether I feel that I have said or done the right things or not.


  2. I am so sorry you feel regret. I’m certain that you were a great comfort to your family members and that God is sovereign over every detail. My father-in-law passed last year over the course of a week and my MIL was determined to be present when he passed. She had lived with a deep regret over the 14 years since her own mother died because the one night she had gone home to get sleep, her mother had passed in the night alone. The hospice worker asked my MIL if her mother had been the type of person who liked having someone with her all the time and the answer was No. The hospice worker explained to my MIL that the night she left was the one her very private mother most likely chose because some people don’t want others there either because they are private people or they don’t want to hurt those they love. I hope you can rest in both the sovereignty of God and the freedom of your mother choosing her moment to go as you continue to grieve her loss. Those words from the hospice worker released my MIL to get sleep at home when she needed to and trust that her husband would pass at the right time for him and God. (He passed a few days later while she was present.)


    1. Thank you for sharing this lovely story. Such a wonderful example of why hospice workers are so valuable not only to the person who is dying, but also to their loved ones. And a timely reminder of God’s sovereignty.


  3. Some in my family were like that, too–resistant to talking about anything religious. It’s hard to know when/whether to do so anyway. I’m not very confrontational, so I tend not to push in areas that I think are unwanted. I do share the gospel briefly in my annual Christmas letters. I had prayed for my mom that God would raise up Christians around her. At her funeral, my pastor from my teens was speaking and explaining the gospel very simply and clearly, and I heard a number of “amens” behind me. I was so blessed to know that God had answered my prayer. Her stance on spiritual things did soften and change as she got older, but I don’t have a clear salvation testimony, so I am not sure about where she stood with the Lord. My prayer is that she believed.

    I think Joni Eareckson Tada has written about heaven, but I have not read those sources yet.


  4. I was called away from my dying dad’s side by a child with strep throat, although my mom, one of my sisters, and my dad’s sister were present. My other sister, who had not been present, felt badly about not being there. I felt like God just had other plans for me not to be there, that it wasn’t something in my hands. Part of that, I think, was to comfort the sister not present. But also, I felt like I’d gotten into the routine of helping him, and others were able to step into that way of drawing near to him after I’d gone. I just had a different assignment. I’d been praying about knowing when to come and go, and a child needing me was a clear time to go.

    I do have a regret about my grandmother-in-law’s passing, though. She had, honestly, been difficult – disowning my husband multiple times for doing what he felt was the right thing in supporting his cousin, etc, as well as the grandma-in-law trying unsuccessfully to undermine our marriage a couple of times. The last time we saw her, he told her he loved her. She said that was difficult for her to say. She looked over at me as if wondering if I loved her, too, and I remained silent. I had tried valliently to love her, be kind, generous, faithful, gentle over the course of our marriage, dispite her slander and disowning. My actions, I think, had been sound, but I found I didn’t have a loving feeling for her and I found I could not say it. My words stuck in my throat. Forgive her? Certainly. Pray for God to be with her? Daily. (She was a Christian. I believe that.) Support my husband in his grief? Devotedly. Feel affectionate for her? I just couldn’t. And I regret that.


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