Friday, September 6, 2013

Present for Death

I received a lovely thank-you note today, a note from the daughter of a man who died a month ago.  Her in-laws are longtime members of my home church; she and her husband were married there, and their children were baptized there.  And so, when her father was in a terrible biking accident from which he never regained consciousness, and she was called to his bedside from another city, she naturally reached out to my former church.  Both pastors were away for the week, and I had agreed to provide back-up pastoral care, which meant that I went down to the hospital to meet with the family on the day after the accident, I think, and was called back a couple of days later to spend part of the afternoon with them as they slowly gathered for the father's final moments.
It seems that it mattered a great deal to them, or at least to the daughter and her Jewish stepmother, that I was there ~ not necessarily me, personally, but someone who could be present to them, read Scripture with them and, perhaps most of all, pray in a way that embraced both Jewish and Christian family religious traditions. 
When my last stepmother died of lung cancer, also in a hospital room, the only people present were my father and I.  His usual instinct is to push others away, but I had simply called him late at night and said that I was on my way.  It took me about four hours to get there, and she died about half an hour later, shortly before the sun came up.  At some point in those early morning hours, the nurse stepped in to ask if we wanted a chaplain, and my father shook his head, "No."
I thought about that night a few years later when I was doing my chaplaincy summer CPE at the Cleveland Clinic.  There, families were not asked; we were always paged as a matter of protocol, at any time of the day or night, if a death was imminent.  I don't recall ever being turned away by family members at the bedside.  There was always some kind of way, even for those to whom faith was unfamiliar territory, to help them be present to the reality of the transition from life to death.  I wondered that summer whether, had a chaplain appeared as my stepmother lay dying, my father would have shown him or her the door.  Perhaps.  His experience may have been solely of pastors who intrude into sacred space with their own version of religion, welcome or not.
I am so much the opposite that I am sometimes startled by the things people say in similar situations ~ or rather, I am startled when they look to me for affirmation of platitudes I cannot affirm.  I have learned to keep my mouth shut and my expression neutral.
I guess what I wonder is, for someone who expects no one or, worse, a meddling someone, does it make a difference if someone does show up to represent, in some way, the presence of God, acknowledged or not?
The great irony of course, is that while I do, usually, at these times, sense God's presence very strongly, it is in the aftermath (years now, for me) that God's absence seems so profound.  And so I read that thank-you note this afternoon and thought: Huh.


  1. Sometimes God asks us just to be present. Your presence is a gift.