Death makes people uncomfortable. After all, it forces us to come face to face with our own mortality and to acknowledge that our loved ones--spouse, parents, siblings, and friends--will one day leave us. While believers need not fear death, those left caring for them often experience a strange mixture of pain and hope--pain as we begin to grieve our loss and hope in the assurance that our loved one will spend eternity with Christ. Of course, if our loved one does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we face an entirely different set of emotions and issues.
How do we bring comfort to the dying? What can we say and do to offer hope?
Move Beyond Your Fears and Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone
When facing the death of a loved one, it's natural to experience a great deal of emotional pain. We struggle with fear--fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, fear of what lies ahead or fear that everything seems so out of control. But effective ministry to the dying requires that we move beyond our fears and personal comfort and step into their world physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
A friend of mine learned that her brother lay dying from an aggressive form of cancer and had only weeks to live. Unable to cope with her own pain and fear, she chose not to call or visit during the last days of his life. Move beyond your fears and step outside of your comfort zone to offer the dying the gift of your presence.
Care for Physical, Emotional and Mental Needs
One way to minister effectively to the dying is to provide for their physical, emotional and mental needs during this difficult time. What needs does your loved one have? Would it help if you ran interference with the doctor or hospice, ensuring proper medical treatment and care? Perhaps your loved one requires full-time nursing care or stronger pain medication. Do what is necessary to keep your loved one comfortable.
The American College of Physicians makes this important point regarding emotional health: "One of the most important things that you can do to help the person you are caring for is to have a positive attitude . . . [they] need encouragement, and they need help noticing the good things that are happening around them. At the same time, it is important to be realistic about the seriousness of their problems."
Hospice Net (www.hospicenet.org) adds, "One of the most important messages you can give to the person you are caring for is this: 'If you want to discuss this uncomfortable issue, I'm willing to do it.'" They recommend you "leave the timing up to the patient, however. To the greatest extent possible, leave decisions on what feelings to share as well as when, how, and with whom to share them up to the patient."
You may also need to help your loved one bring closure to areas of his or her life. Ask, "Is there anything that you would like to take care of before you die? How can I help you with that?" Relationships may need mending or goodbyes may need to be said. Do all that you can do to help.
Keep in mind, too, that caregiving can be exhausting, stressful and overwhelming at times, which is why you need to step away from the situation periodically for brief periods to care for your needs. Ask another family member to stay with your loved one while you care for your basic needs: food, rest, sleep and relaxation. Once your needs are met, you'll be better equipped and more effective at meeting the needs of your loved one.
Address Spiritual Needs
If your loved one is a believer, offer to read God's Word aloud or pray together. God's Word has the power to bring comfort and hope in all circumstances, especially to the dying. Remind your loved one of God's promises, His faithfulness and His goodness.
Talk about Jesus with your loved one; if your loved one does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, now is the time to bring up the topic, but not before spending time in prayer. The best way to share the gospel is through your personal testimony. When you finish, explain that we have all sinned and that eternal life is a gift. You might say something like this, "We've all sinned, but Jesus paid the price for our sin and offers us the gift of eternal life. All He asks is that we acknowledge our sin, believe that He died and rose again and confess Him as Lord and Savior. Is that something you would like to do?" If not, ask your loved one to think about what you have said and tell them they can pray the prayer on their own if they like after you leave.
Dying is a part of life. Though never easy, we can approach the death of a loved one in God's strength. We can be a vessel of His love, comfort and grace, offering hope during one of the most significant passages in a loved one's life. When the time finally comes and your loved one dies, you can rest assured that the same God who extended His comfort through you will then reach down and comfort you.
" When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory'" (1 Cor. 15:54).
Mary J. Yerkes
Resources for Caregivers:
Hospice Net (http://www.hospicenet.org/)
Family Caregiver Alliance (http://www.caregiver.org/caregiver/jsp/home.jsp)
Strength for Caring (http://www.strengthforcaring.com/)
National Alliance for Caregiving (http://www.caregiving.org/)
AARP Caregiving (http://www.aarp.org/families/caregiving/)
American College of Physicians Online, http://www.acponline.org/public/h_care/a-solve1.htm, Copyright © 1997 by the American College of Physicians, Headquarters: Philadelphia, PA.
What You Can Do to Be a Supportive Caregiver; available from http://www.hospicenet.org/html/supportive_how.html .