death and dying

 

May I Walk You Home: 
A Guide to Sharing Christ's Love With the Dying 
by Melody Rossi
Copyright © 2007 - Book Excerpt

Part Two
What You Need Along the Way

Chapter 5
A Road Map
(Know the Destination)

One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness. —C. S. Lewis

This journey is different from any other you will ever take. Though it will leave you changed, it is not your journey. Rather, you are walking alongside someone else who is discovering the ultimate destination. The person whose journey it is must set the course and take the lead. This is not yours to do. You are there to offer support and lighten the load when you can—not to steer. However, if the person is not a believer, you are keenly aware that the chosen route leads directly into the wilderness. For a time you must proceed knowing this, and simply love the traveler, offer good company, and prove your faithfulness. Your hope is that your loved one will eventually realize the road has led nowhere and will at last turn to you for direction. Only then will you be able to show the Way. It is important that you consult the map in advance so you will know exactly where to go when that time comes.

If you want to see the one you love reach Home safely, it won't work to force the traveler onto your route, even though you know where it leads. Your loved one will resent this. By pressing the issue, you may hinder the work of the Holy Spirit and prevent the very thing you want to happen.

Watch for Landmarks

When my father was recovering from a massive stroke, he began, for the first time in our relationship, to reveal his inner heart to me. I believe this happened only because of the countless hours during which I sat with him at the hospital. Due to my teaching schedule at the University, my opportunities to see him often fell during parts of the day that were inconvenient for others. This provided us with great expanses of time to ourselves. He loved to tell stories, and I became his best audience, asking him to replay all the great accomplishments of his life and to delve into family history that I knew was soon to be lost. During those visits, he sized me up, and eventually decided I was safe. That was when he started asking questions about God. However, before he ever ventured into that territory, he managed to tell me that I used to be a "Bible thumper who preached sermons" to him. By doing so, he clearly informed me he was now interested in God, but wasn't going to respond to that approach.

Over time Dad became more transparent about spiritual matters and even opened up about his fears. His vulnerability was the first significant landmark on our journey, and signaled to me that we had passed into new territory. My father had been scrutinizing my every move, curious as to whether my concern for him had strings attached. Because I met him on his terms and showed up simply to love him, he was eventually satisfied I could be trusted. Both of us initially tiptoed over this boundary, but as we became more comfortable our conversations about God intensified. Later, when I offered to pray for him and read from the Bible, he was completely open. Eventually he made the requests for prayer and Bible readings, once again providing an important landmark in his spiritual journey. Though I was always mindful of the pace that was comfortable for him, I took note of the cues he gave me that indicated he was ready to go to a new level.

As you look for or encounter opportunities to speak to your loved one about the Lord, remember that old perspectives and viewpoints may now be in a state of change. You may assume you know the person's beliefs and boundaries, but because they are shifting, you may misjudge what you can or cannot say. You may also find that former objections, even though strongly held in the past, no longer matter and are replaced by a new openness.

If your loved one provides you with a spiritual landmark, it is important for you to respond in a way that will facilitate further discussion. Otherwise, the query (even if veiled) will just dangle in space, and the opportunity will be lost. This requires a great deal of respect, reverence, and restraint in order to avoid shutting down the conversation altogether. This is a time to listen more than you speak, to gather rather than dispense information.

Think of these landmarks as the flagman at the beginning of a construction zone. Although you have a signal to move ahead, it simply isn't safe or appropriate to step on the gas and speed forward. Proceed with caution and pay careful attention to the conditions around you. Your loved one's roadway may be littered with potholes or filled with treacherous debris. Soften your tone of voice, and ask questions that will lead to further discussion. Try to gain a clear understanding of what the person thinks and feels right now, and honor those feelings for what they are without trying to impose any changes. Choose your words carefully and make sure to come across as nonthreatening. At all costs, avoid pat answers and "churchy" language, as those are probably the very things your loved one has objected to in the past. Ask God to give you a gentle demeanor and help you recognize the real issues in your loved one's heart. The following are some examples of landmarks that indicate openness and possible responses to them.

* Mention of God
* Mention of fear of death/afterlife
* Reminiscing about people with strong faith
* Bringing up issues related to church—even if in anger
* Telling a joke or funny story about heaven, hell, God, angels, etc.
* "Fishing" ("How was church today?" "How is your pastor?" "Did you talk to God about me?")
* Revealing fears about God
* Asking for a member of the clergy
* Showing regret for not going to church or knowing God
* Showing regret for sin
* Other (anything is possible!)

Mention of God. Your loved one might slip God into a conversation (in a positive or negative way) that is totally out of character or context. This could even come in the form of a cliché, such as "God helps those who help themselves." Your loved one may purposely bring up this topic in order to see how you will respond. You might respond by saying something like "Do you think that is true?" "What is your opinion about that?" "I have never known how you feel about that. What do you really think?"

Mention of fear of death/afterlife. Many people have a great deal of fear about the dying process or about what happens to them after death. This is usually only revealed in a time of great vulnerability, but may be present just under the surface at other times, masked by sarcasm or false confidence. If there has been a close call and your loved one says something like "I thought I was going to die!" you could respond by asking, "What was that like for you?" Or if the doctor has brought bad news and your loved one wants to talk about it, you might be able to ask, "Are you afraid?" In this way, you voice what the person wants to say but cannot. If the person brings up this topic with sarcasm, that is also an open door. "I'm not afraid to die!" is actually a great conversation starter. A simple question like "Why is that?" may lead to an important conversation that will shed new light.

Reminiscing about people with strong faith. When your loved one says things like "My mother went to church every day," or talks about a friend (past or present) who was/is "religious," or who "prayed all the time," this shows that there has been reflection on this topic. Even getting the historical facts will help you understand whether those people were perceived as helpers or hypocrites. "What was she like?" "How old were you then?" and questions like these will yield a great deal of enlightenment for you and help you revisit this topic later.

Bringing up issues related to church—even if in anger. We all know that one of the greatest obstacles to faith is the fact that there are so many imperfect people out there who profess to have it. Your loved one may need to talk through some of these issues with you in order to come to terms with lingering frustrations or bitterness. If these come in the form of questions, try your best to answer them. But if they come in the form of indictments, accusations, or angry railings, don't feel compelled to make a defense of your fellow believers. It may be more important for your loved one to know you understand, even though you are part of "the other side." "I'm sorry that happened to you" is often an appropriate response.

Telling a joke or funny story about heaven, hell, God, angels, etc. After the laughter subsides, if there seems to be an openness, you might inquire of your loved one, "Do you think that is what it will really be like?"

"Fishing" ("How was church today?" "How is your pastor?" "Did you talk to God about me?"). Questions like these are the equivalent of spiritual flirting! Your loved one is probably trying to get the topic of God into play but is making sure it is done in a safe way. Answer the question, but then pose one of your own and see where the answer leads. Don't go too far, but come back to the topic later ("Church was great. Would you like to hear about it?" "Would you like the pastor to come see you?" "If I do talk to God about you, what would you like me to say?").

Revealing fears about God. Fears about God may come out blatantly, but may also be revealed through feigned aloofness. The former can be dealt with more easily and in a straightforward manner, but the latter will require more careful attention. A comment like "If I ever went to church, lightning would strike" lets you know there is some tremendous guilt that needs to be dealt with or a sin that needs to be forgiven. It might be too frightening to bring it up without a cover, but by understanding what is really being said, you can ask a direct question that will allow you to dispel the misconception.

Asking for a member of the clergy. Do not hesitate to fulfill this request, as it clearly indicates your loved one is ready for intervention. However, be sure to offer any level of assistance needed before the clergy member arrives. "Do you have a special concern?" "Can I pray for you right now, before he arrives?" "Do you know that you can pray directly to God yourself? Would you like to?"

Showing regret for not going to church or knowing God. By drawing on the story of the thief on the cross, you can reassure your loved one that it is never too late to make a decision to become right with the Lord.

Showing regret for sin. As a person comes to the end of life, there is a tendency to take an inventory of trespasses against other people. If you sense your loved one is experiencing this, do not miss the significance of it! It may be helpful for your loved one to make apologies and mend fences, and you can offer to help facilitate this by placing phone calls or inviting others to visit. On a spiritual level, this attitude of repentance is the point at which your loved one can receive Christ and experience the ultimate forgiveness.

Dad had been paralyzed from the neck down by his stroke and had been in a rehab center for three months. One day, overcome with fear that his paralysis would be permanent, he broke down in tears. This was not only a significant landmark but a wide open door. "I don't want to live like a vegetable for the rest of my life. I wish I could die," he told me through his sobs.

"Dad," I gently said, "I know it is hard being here in this hospital bed every day without being able to move. But you aren't a vegetable. You are going to die someday, and maybe God has given you a second chance to know Him before then. In the meantime, you can think, you can talk, and you can pray."

He responded from his brief encounters with the Catholic Church. "But I don't know any prayers." I explained he didn't need memorized prayers, but could just talk to God plainly, the way he would talk to anyone else. He was ready! So there in that hospital room, I had the unexpected joy of teaching my eighty-three-year-old father how to pray!

From that day on, Rita (Dad's wife) told me she frequently "caught" him praying when she came to visit. This was a big change for her and took her by surprise. Dad often told me with a twinkle in his eye, "I talked to the Skipper this morning!" The "Skipper" obviously heard his prayers, too, for Dad made a miraculous recovery from his stroke. He walked again—even without a cane! He knew God had healed him, and told everyone he knew what had happened. He was so grateful that for the two remaining years of his life he went to church every Sunday he was able!

Excerpted from:
May I Walk You Home: A Guide to Sharing Christ's Love With the Dying by Melody Rossi
Copyright © 2007; ISBN-13 978-0764203558
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

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