Ministry with Aging: Help Them Die Well

“Do death visits like yesterday’s make you very tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.” He responded.

Good. Good to know it’s a thing and I wasn’t weird for falling asleep as soon as I got home yesterday and staying asleep until this morning. 

My pastor and I had a short debrief of yesterday’s visit, and he ended our conversation with this:

“I asked a hospice chaplain friend of mine how they did it every day. The answer was ‘I learned a long time ago to let go and give it to God or I wouldn’t survive.’ Yes, it is exhausting, but our job is to walk this journey with them- to help them die well.”

“I find it’s a really special place to be- standing with someone in the doorway between life and death.” I said.

“It’s holy ground,” he said.

If you’re ever given the honor of walking this holy ground with someone; if they let you in to journey this sacred avenue with them:

– don’t deny or belittle the fact that someone thinks they are dying. This is a part of life – take seriously the task of helping someone compete this part with peace, grace, dignity and purpose.

– don’t offer platitudes to fill sacred silence just because it might be unconfortable. The silence surrounding a feeble hand clasped in both of yours can speak volumes on its own. Don’t diminish the holiness of that moment and others like it by saying things like “this is God’s will,” “God needed another angel in heaven or another flower for the garden.” No.

– don’t pray for healing, necessarily. Pray about healing. Praying about healing opens up new meanings for what healing looks like – beyond the physical. It can include relational, emotional and spiritual healing. Praying about healing takes the pressure off the prayer to compose a powerful invocation of God’s touch and allows the one being prayed for permission to voice their own prayer – in an open ended way. When you pray about healing, you voice your thoughts about healing, how it would feel for this person to be made whole, and in doing this you allow the person to reflect on their own thoughts about healing.

– ask what they’re most afraid of right now

– let them talk: a review of life is a developmental task of aging. It’s a gift to the listener and your listening to one’s life story is a gift to them. Hear the stories; each one. Do not belittle regrets that are expressed, but do help the person find grace, growth and God’s hand at work through mistakes and regrets, trials and sorrows, joys and triumphs.

– don’t deny your tears a way out: it can be very a very emotional time for you and for the person. Don’t let yourself be overcome by emotion if you are ministering to them, but you don’t have to bottle it up either. If they join you in tears, ask what their tears would say if they could talk. Tell the person what your tears would say if they could talk. Walk the journey, with all of its emotions, together.

– let go and give it to God. Pray with the person before you leave them, ask God to hold and keep them in perfect peace, then go. Leave the person in God’s perfect peace; knowing you have journeyed with them through sacred avenues on holy ground.

– release. Find a way to ritualize and release each sacred encounter, then do something to fill you cup so it’s full for the next journey.

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