We lay down trophies and accolades
After visiting a well-known aging pastor and his wife, I thought about the couple’s influence among their peers, church, community and denomination. Most of this had vanished because of their declining health and years removed from their positions.
Not long after my visit, the pastor died. I thought of a line in an often-sung hymn, “’Til my trophies at last I lay down.” No matter our accomplishments, importance or status, there comes a time when we lay all our trophies and accolades down.
Next time you envy the position and achievements of others or regret your own, remember everyone lays down their trophies in the end.
We become more open to the mystery and presence of God
Few people will reject a prayer at the end of life, even those who struggle to believe in prayer or God. One dying man said to me, “You only die once.” A woman recently told me, “I’ve never died before.”
“Death is not something we can rehearse for.”
These obvious statements reflect their anxiety about their impending deaths. They also remind us we don’t get do-overs, and no one knows what the experience of death is like. Thus, the mystery. Death is not something we can rehearse for.
For many, the end of life is a holy and sacred moment, and divine and sacred things happen, not just for the one who is dying but also for their family and friends. The dying are the conductors. They take the lead. The rest of us observe, and we journey with them as best we can until their last breath.
Just before death, some patients call out the names of loved ones as if they see them. Some who have had hearts as hard as a stone make room for confession, reconciliation and God. Chaplains, who are often present with family at the time of death, are in a unique position to intercede for them, giving thanks to God for the life of the one who is dying, seeking God’s grace for their souls, and receiving the hopes, fears, anger, grief, gratitude and pain of the family. It’s always holy ground.
There is a sadness that life is ending
It seems obvious, but most dying people are sad to leave this world. There is within us an instinct to survive. Of course, all who are dying are not aware of themselves. But those aware are sad to be leaving this world. People realize more than ever that life is a precious gift, and they cannot get it back once it’s gone.
“People realize more than ever that life is a precious gift, and they cannot get it back once it’s gone.”
Sure, some say, “I am tired. I am tired of suffering. My body and my spirit can’t stand any more pain. I’m ready to die.” I hear that from many. Even then, they are sad to leave those they love. They are sad to leave the best of life behind.
On the day before a man died, his mother was feeding him a few bites of mashed potatoes. He was too sick to sit up and eat. Engaging in small talk, I said, “I bet that woman can cook some good mashed potatoes.”
“Whooee! What are you talking about?” he said as he ate a few bites. “Not only can she cook some fine mashed potatoes, but the other day she cooked some vegetable soup that would hurt you ’cause you couldn’t stop eating it.”
The next day, before he died, he told his family, “I’m going to miss y’all, but I’m tired. When I get to heaven, I’m gonna hug my Jesus.”
Even though he was tired of suffering and had hope for eternity, dying was still sad.
We think we have more time than we do
It isn’t easy to accept that we are finite. It’s easier to imagine that others will not exist than to think we will not exist. Few of us like to entertain the reality of our mortality. When death comes, it sneaks up on us, even when we are terminal.
“When death comes, it sneaks up on us, even when we are terminal.”
Many people die without a will, without reconciling with their loved ones, without an advance directive, without life insurance, without sharing passwords to computers, without sharing information about how to run the business, with secrets or without making peace with God because they think they have plenty of time for these things.
Denial can serve a purpose as a person adjusts from the shock of hearing bad news to accepting it. However, living in denial for extended periods is not healthy. It’s one reason people think they have more time than they do. It comes with significant costs.
Not all of us will have an extended illness before we die. For some, death will come instantly, tragically, without time to prepare or say goodbye. Working as a chaplain in two trauma hospitals, I see this often. Families and friends are left remembering the last words they said to one another before work, on the phone, before bed, on the job, at the gym, in school, at church.
It’s important to remember that tragedies don’t just happen to others. They can happen to us, too. We are all going to die. But we all think we have more time than we do.
Because we are prone to think this way, the Psalmist gave us these words to live by: “Teach us to number our days and recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should” (Psalm 90:12).
Most of us would live differently if we knew we only had a short time to live. Many of us have less time to live than we think.
We should plan for the future as if we are going to live past 100, but in relationships with family, friends and even strangers, we should live as if our time is short and treat people how we want to be treated.
We should love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. For “it is appointed for (people) to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
John Michael Helms is a pastoral counselor and board-certified chaplain who lives in Jefferson, Ga.
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