An old friend reached out to me recently with sad news that his mother was dying. As you might imagine, he was struggling with how to handle it. The brief back-and-forth we had brought to mind a similar journey I took to the brink of death with my mother-in-law a few years back.
In January of 2008, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took the news with her characteristic tenacity and matter-of-factness, and started treatments so she could get past this inconvenience and get on with real life. In January of 2010, the cancer returned with a vengeance and she was given only a few weeks to live. We buried her in February.
I didn’t talk or write about those moments back then because they were very raw, very close and intimate. Writing about them at the time felt like betraying some kind of trust, soiling some kind of memory. But talking with my old friend reminded me that every day, people around me face that same kind of close and private pain. I hadn’t thought about my own experience as being helpful to anyone, but then I realized that one of the most difficult things about facing the death of a loved one is not really knowing what to expect of those moments just before death. So I’m sharing some of my personal observations with the hope that it can help ease some of the apprehension.
We knew for a month that Nancy didn’t have long; but the waiting was perhaps the most difficult part. The world doesn’t just stop revolving for that month. Bills need to be paid, the house needs to be cleaned and everyone else keeps up their breakneck pace while you sit and wait for the thing you don’t want to happen to happen.
Finding out a loved one has died unexpectedly is shocking and upsetting and often accompanied by a sense of regret: “I never had a chance to say goodbye.” However, knowing that someone is going to die weeks in advance is difficult in different ways, especially with an illness like cancer that slowly wrings the life out of someone until they’re just a shell of who they once were.
There were so many unknowns my wife and I wrestled with during that final month. How often should we visit? At what point do I take off work? How do we talk about death with her? How do we talk about death with her husband? Do we talk about it at all or do we just try to distract her from her pain with pleasant conversation? Is it selfish to leave her alone at night to get some much needed rest? Do we we treat her as if she’s dying or do we pretend she’s not in pain so she can finish her life with dignity?
I won’t pretend I had all the right answers. To be honest, the only answer I had for those difficult questions was love.
The day before Nancy died, I sat in her bedroom for several hours, playing guitar and singing to her. I’m not sure why, but I was a bit ashamed to do this in front of everyone. I visited her room when everyone was busy with other things, and I sang her songs about peace and about heaven. I held her hands a few times and prayed with her. She was unconscious most of the time, and her breathing was so labored that it brought tears to my eyes.
I don’t know if she heard me as I played, and sometimes I wondered if I was just playing for my own sake. But I figured that even if there were a chance she knew what was happening, it was a kind and decent thing to do, and something I would want in those final moments.
Nancy believed, as do I, that her last breath on earth would be her first breath in heaven. Her faith in Christ gave her great comfort in the weeks before her death and us great comfort in the years after. However, even if you think there’s nothing after this life, that heaven isn’t real and that there is no God, to comfort someone when they’re afraid and dying, to hold their hand as they take those last few steps through the valley of the shadow of death and to let them know that they are not alone—
That is love in its purest form.