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October 24, 2011

Thoughts on Death

Two months ago I started spending my Thursday afternoons at a nearby nursing home. I visit a woman named Millie who will probably not live much into next year. Since we spend most of our time in the common room, I end up interacting with staff members and other residents as well, and as Millie rarely speaks in more than short, nonsensical phrases and questions, I spend much of the time observing the room at large.

The nursing home is a sad place. Residents generally have some degree of dementia or some other mental disability. Millie often cries, seemingly out of the blue. She buries her wrinkled, mournful face in her cupped, knotty hands. Her shoulders shake. I wish I could know what specifically makes her sad, but asking questions doesn’t get me far. This week I’m going to take her some photos of my puppy. Maybe they’ll make her feel happy, at least for a time.

The nursing home can also be a warm and even comical place. The staff is affectionate with the residents, and though the residents can’t often articulate reciprocal pleasure, I see it in their faces. I observe the friendships Millie has with other women residents, like Helen. They smile at each other from across the table, wave when one is being wheeled past the other, converse incoherently in kind tones. Millie compliments Helen on her cute stuffed duckie (which really exists, and is cute). And I had to laugh last week when I heard one woman snarl, “Don’t you kick me again! Don’t you kick me!” after Helen had actually and purposefully nailed this other woman in the shin. It’s not every day I witness two 90something-year-old women in a physical fight.

I’ve never before spent regular time in a place of such overt transience. At the nursing home, people are coming to their end, mentally and physically, and everybody knows it. I just learned that Art, a dear, old British resident whom I loved to greet with a firm hand hold, died last week. His hands are cold and stiff now. He’s gone from us.

For some reason there’s recently been a series of deaths at my mom’s church, most of which have happened swiftly or unexpectedly. It seems like every time we talk on the phone, my mom leads with, “Have I told you about [fill in the blank] yet?”

“No . . .”

“She was diagnosed with cancer six weeks ago, and yesterday I played the piano at her funeral.”

Her accounts always end like this: “We just don’t know. We don’t know when the end will come, honey.”

I confess I’ve become desensitized to my mom’s accounts. I feel I need to pull myself out from under the weight of her pronouncements. In fact, I need to stop imagining what all these remnant family members are feeling at the loss of their loved ones. I can get weighed down and start to elevate death to an improper place, as if death is the final thing, the guillotine, the black-out, that will surely catch us off-guard and likely too soon.

I’m thankful to be spending regular time at a nursing home, where death is an understood, a given. The residents live with its inevitability every day, every hour. While each death in the nursing home is mourned, death is not given undue power. That’s a good picture for me as someone who tends to invest a lot of fear in the prospect of dying or losing someone I love most.

Of course my mom’s right. We don’t know when death will come to us. It really could be tomorrow, or tonight even. And it will be really difficult for those left here to mourn, and of course, we all need to be prepared spiritually for our own deaths.

Death brings very real pain, and we need and will need healing from the great losses we’ll inevitably experience at death’s hand. But there’s this, too, that truly changes things: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). We—I—cannot forget the Resurrection of Christ. Death has nowhere close to the final word. It is a temporary setback—a hard setback—but that is all.

O death, where is your sting?

Related Tags: Death, Fear, Grief, hope


This post came at just the PERFECT time. My Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on September 10th. His doctor told him that there was nothing to be done. His cancer was too advanced and treatment would not buy my Dad anymore time but it would very likely help kill him. He was told he has two to six months to live. This devastating news was compounded by the fact I have never, ever had a family/relative die in my lifetime that I can remember. I have never been to a funeral. So it is incredibly difficult for my first encounter with death to be my Dad. I don't know to process it. I cannot fathom it and I have been taking it veyr hard and it has been very difficult for me. Thank you for this post. It helped a little. I welcome anymore encouragement and support.

Dear Sandra, my Dad was also diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, in 2003. He had Chemo but died within 5 months. What helped for me was to spend lots of time with him. I also compiled a powerpoint presentation of his life which I started while he was still alive. He saw it and told me I was clever. It was a lovely way for us to look back at his life together and for him to tell me about the people and places in his life. When it was played at his funeral it was wonderful. For me it was my way of starting to grieve for him while he was still alive. My Dad came to the Lord right at the very end and I am so happy about that. He was a carpenter and I expect he and Jesus have had some wonderful talks togerher! Praying for you, Julie in Sydney, Australia

Hi, my name is Kim McKinney. My husband only 57 passed 2 weeks ago of cancer, we were married 33 year...I thought I would share what I wrote the day he passed to maybe help us be more connected to the both gift of life and of death....

I stayed beside my husband listening to his labored breaths. Hospice advised me to take breaks in case he wanted to pass alone, not wanting to burden anyone. I kissed his warm forehead and reluctantly left telling him he could go be with Jesus, but I would be back in a few minutes to be with him again. I peered through the doorway, good he was still with us. I curled up beside him on the bed and ...felt the warmth and comfort of his body next to mine. Time passed, his familiar scent embracing me. The spaces between each breath became longer and quieter. A breath, I listened, I waited, I watched, the next rise of his chest did not come. He had lovingly waited for me to be close to him as he took the hand of Jesus and left me for a time. A kiss on his warm head one minute, the next was on his cooling forehead. We are only a breath away from eternity. I will miss you Stan, every day until I see you again.

Julie, thank you so much for your reply and for your support. I have been trying to spend much more time with my Dad than I usually had before he was diagnosed. Every Sunday after Church I spend the entire rest of the Sunday with him and my Mom. We laugh, we talk, we get serious and and sometimes there is just silence and so we sit in silence or sit together watching TV. I hate American football and have no idea what is going on on the TV screen but I'm near him and he's enjoying the football game so much and that's all that matters. These are the moments I have to remember and cherish, come what may very soon. Two Sundays ago my Dad called me into his room and took me aside and asked me to please make copies of a few sepia colored photos he had hiddem away. They were of his parents. I was more than happy to make copies (and enlarge them) and I even framed them. He was touched and moved when he saw the photos enlarged and framed. He stared at them for some time. I had never thought to make a powerpoint slideshow presentation before. Thank you so much for the idea. Thank you! I will see what I can do and see if I can scrounge up some photos (my family is not very good at taking or keeping photos. There aren't even any photos of me under the age of 12!) I love your idea and I thank you so much for your reply. You have lifted my spirits to know that there is someone else who knows my and my Dad's situation.

Kim, thank you so very much for sharing such a deeply personal and sincere account of your experience. I am humbled that you would share such a private moment. Though I wept when I read your post, it also brought me comfort. Though, I am not going to lie, since as I mentioned in my original post, I have never known anyone close to me to have died, I am terrified of the pain of the loss of my Dad. True, I am somewhat comforted by the knowledge and reassurance that I will be with my Dad again one day, I am still trying to process not seeing him in this life and I fear the pain of the void of his presence. I am in awe of how everyone mananges to cope. I already have bouts of crying now in the privacy of my home and my Dad is still alive. I cannot imagine the pain when he is not here. So your post and your bravery and your willingness to share brings me much reassurance and comfort and again, it really helps to know that someone else knows what my family is going through. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

I just lost my older brother two weeks ago. In the past three years, I have lost my mom and oldest brother as well.
As hard as it was to say goodbye to my mother, she was 92 and she loved the Lord.

However, my brothers...the oldest was an avowed atheist and the other had, as far as I could tell, only a faith in a nebulous "something better." When the apostle Paul tells us not to mourn as those who have no hope he was talking about the death of other believers. And I can take some comfror in knowing I will see my mother again. But there is no hope when unbelieving loved ones die...and that hurts, really, really hurts...

So many good comments here. I would also like to suggest being intentional in seeking support through Christian counseling and support groups. Churches in our community offer weekly meetings called "Grief Share". Reading material such as " A Grief Observed" by C.S. Lewis and "The Grief Recovery Handbook" by John W. James and Russell Friedman can be very helpful. Never forget the Psalms as a great resource for comfort and understanding of grief and pain. Journal about your journey. It will take effort and it is work to go through this process, learn to lean the weight of this on God and allow Him to carry you.

Robbin, thank you you so much for your suggestion of reaching out to Christian counseling and grief support groups. As soon as I found out my Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I immediately reached out to five of my closest friends, Christian women, whom I have been friends with for YEARS. Coincidentally, all five of them have already lost their fathers to some illness or another and so I thought they would offer great support and comfort. Initially they responded to my email letting them know about my Dad's diagnosis but I have not heard from them since then. Not a single email from any of them. I guess I thought, as my Christian sisters and friends they would know best what to say to someone who was in the situation they had been in. But there is only silence and my unanswered emails.

So I DID seek counsel and made an appointment to speak with my pastor. Our conversation brought me much comfort. Everything he said brought me a greater understanding and when I left his office I felt as though I not had a different perspective but I felt comforted and encouraged. I am secure in the knowledge and the FACT that though my Dad is leaving this life, he is really started a new life. His death is actually giving birth to new life in Heaven. I hold on to that truth and I am leaning on God now for comfort and my support.

Thank you so much Robbin. Maybe after all is said and done and I have had time to truly grieve in private (when that time comes), perhaps I will seek out a grief support group or Christian counseling. God bless.

Sandra, I decided to post this. Each of us must deal with the death of a family member at some time in our lives. I wrote this the weekend my father went home to be with our Lord. I miss my parents every day, and when I read this I do not feel sad, rather happy, because I know when my time comes I will get to see them both again.

Sunday September 7, 2008

1. Dad has not eaten since Tuesday Sept 2nd.
2. His urine output is almost nil
3. He has purple blotchy spots on his legs and arms[the nurse says it is because his organs are demanding the blood supply, so the body decreases the amount that is distributed to his limbs]
4. he stopped reading the newspaper, he read it every day.
5. he stopped watching tv, his favorite show was jepardy and the news at 5 and 6pm.

He is in decline. I have had to administer morphine twice a day. He has pain, can’t be touched on his skin. He sleeps almost all the time now, I have to grind his pills into powder and mix with apple sauce. I get him to somehow take this three times a day. I also at that time give him tea through a straw. Like you would do a baby, b4 they know how to suck it through.

The nurse was here yesterday and will be here today. His BP was somewhere around 98, which is very low considering he has high BP. He has periods of apnea [he does not breathe]. I have not slept a whole lot, I guess that is because, when my mom passed I was sleeping. She was by herself even though dad was in the bed next to her. I missed a moment in time I can never get back; I do not want to miss it with him. His eyes are glassy and not looking at anything in particular. They look beyond what we see in the room. He talks to my mom; I know that he misses her very much. I pray that God will send her to come get him. I think the transfer would be easier for him.

Hospice is here on continuous care. On Friday they wanted to put him in a nursing home until De figured out what she wants to do. But when Vanessa and the social worker came, Vanessa determined that his status had changed. I guess we could say we are on death watch.The aide and I keep him turned, because his skin is breaking down, he has pressure sores, and unfortunate that is because I can not turn him by myself. And it bothers me. He is not a one person deal anymore. He does not move anymore can’t help facilitate his turning. And every time we touch him, he moans in pain. I hate it. He deserves better, but I know that it is a process.

I cried Friday almost all day, since then a little more controlled. Just tired, but to afraid to go to sleep, for too long.
He’s snoring as he sleeps, but there are times when he quits snoring and he actually stops breathing I have to put my hand on his chest and when that faint breathe comes it kinda makes me phew…. We had to raise his head a little, because he started gurgling, like he was collecting fluid in his lungs. He is between this world and the next, I wonder what he is seeing, experiencing. He is doing the not breathing gig more often now, makes me a little anxious.

There are times when I feel helpless and not in control of the situation. And I know that I am not suppose to, all I can do is leave the whole mess in God’s hands. He is the almighty healer, supporter, Lord, and Creator of everything. I have prayed that he will make the transition peaceful and timely.

He does not respond to my touch there is no acknowledgement of awareness. She said that his lungs are full and that his pupils are fixed. That it is just a matter of time. He is ready to go home. Now we have to be able to let him go. Dee and Laurie are on their way up, all I had to do was say what the nurse told me. I just hope they make it in time.

The nurse has left, and Marie the aide is busy taking care of dad. I need to get busy with doing stuff around the house, so I start doing some laundry, cleaning the kitchen. I get the big bucket and put water into it to mop the floors, which I never get to. I am working on my computer, burning some movies I have on my external hard drive. I hear him snoring, still, and stopping every so often. I pause to look over at him to see if I can see him breathing. I get up and walk over to him and put my hand on his chest and rub gently. B4 he lost consciousness, if I had done that he would have told me to stop the nonsense.

I went around to the other side of the bed where he was closer to that side of the bed. I gently rubbed his head, and they say that hearing is the last sensory to leave the body. I tell him that I love him very much and that if he see’s mom go to her, it was okay, I would be okay. That he would be welcomed with waiting arms.

It was about 3pm I walked out to the living room to check on him, He was still snoring. I felt a little relieved he was still here. I thought he would be here for at least till Monday. At least I hoped. I went out to the laundry and took clothes out of the dryer and put clothes from the washer to the dryer. I walked back inside and put the clothes on the couch. I got it done by 4:15 or 4:25pm. Lay lay, my puppy decided she needed to go outside, so we went. Marie’s husband stopped by to see her, she had gone out front. I came back in and walked over to my computer; I glanced over at dad and walked over to him.

It is 4:40 pm on a beautiful sunny September afternoon, and my father has slipped the bonds of earth, and has been received by our Father in His house. My mom is standing there, with my sister Rita, and my great nephew Bryce, waiting to welcome him home. His mom and dad standing there waiting to hold him, after being separated for such a long time. He is laughing and happy to see them, hugging my mom for all its worth, they are finally together again, after being separated for three years, three months and 28 days, she went home on May 10, 2005.

I took his face in my hands and took the oxygen off of him, he looked so at peace. I told him your home now, and I kissed his bald forehead. I started to cry uncontrollable, my chest heaving, Marie came in from outside and I looked at her and said He’s gone home. She walked over to me and held my shoulders and told me he is where he can not be in pain anymore, and he is walking upright and on both his legs. Do not worry, he is home with Jesus.

It took me some time to regain some control; I knew I had to call my sisters, Once that was all done, all I could do was wait for Dee and Laurie to get here; they were about 45 minutes away.
Walked back into where he was and I took his hand in mine and stroked it. I was listening to my christian music, and just sitting there watching him.

Dee and Laure got here about 5:30 pm. I was outside when they got here. We hugged and went inside. I let them go see him by themselves, because they needed to have closure. Everything from then on was surreal. Nikki got there but she did not go into to see him she wanted to remember him b4 all this happened.

the nurse came, did what she had to do to pronounce him, and then we had to wait for the funeral home to come pick him up. They did around 8:30pm, we got to say one last goodbye, then the four of us went out to dinner to Chili’s and had a drink in honor of our father and grandfather. Bless him, he is finally home….


Thank you so, so much for this. I read it the day you posted it but unfortunately I was in the process of moving shortly after that and then the holidays were upon us starting with Thanksgiving the week after I moved. I have been trying to spend alot of time with my Dad and I absolutely love that you shared this with me. It brought me much comfort. It's like no one wants to talk about. Not even my family. How much can we tiptoe around the issue at hand. How long can we ignore the GINORMOUS elephant in the room? You post made me feel like I am the only one who is going through this.

Here is the latest development...

It has begun...my Dad has finally started feeling pain on Thursday 29 Dec 11. They have started the morphine in small doses and today was my first experience with seeing him that way. I went to see him this New Year's Eve afternoon before I came in to work. Thankfully he is still at home and resting in the comfort of his own bed.

He was lucid and I lay in his bed next to him. We talked a little. Mostly there were long silences in which I thought he was asleep. He has not been eating. He is too weak to get out of bed. He told me all he wants to do is lie there and sleep until the pain awakes him. He said it hurts worse to sit or stand so he only wants to lie.

Later this afternoon, as I was sitting in the kitchen talking with my grandmother, my Dad cried out in pain from his bedroom. My husband & I rushed in and my Dad was holding his side in pain. He was grimacing and crying out. I gave him the dose of morphine under his tongue via a small dropper. It was like feeding a very skinny baby bird. He immediately started to doze out while still moaning.

This is all new for me and I had to mentally berate myself to "Suck it!" "Be Strong!" "Shake it off!" "Buck up!" all the while so I would not break down in front of my grandmother who is already an emotional wreck. No one in my family knows what to expect from cancer. This is all new to us. He is the first person in my family ever whom we have seen or experience cancer first hand.

Peggy, there are no words. On my God, Peggy. Oh my God.

Here we go....

I'm cleaning up my email and found these postings. My heart goes out to you. My father and my husband died within three months of each other in 2006. There were times during those months and the two years that followed I thought I would lose my mind. Our spirits are completely repelled by death; we are made for life, life eternal. But God so comforted me when I "heard" Him "say", "This is not unto Death."

So we have heaven to look forward to... but in the meanwhile, grief is hard. They referred to it as grief work and it is work. Like labor to bring forth new life, we must labor through, work out our grief. But it is possible. And life will return. Never the same, but it will be good again.

You will have beautiful memories of caring for your father. The veil between heaven and earth seemed so thin as I cared for my husband's failing body. He also had cancer and lived for fifteen months after diagnosis. Unfortunately, my father lived three days away so I wasn't able to spend much time with him during his last days. It's still hard to believe he is gone because I wasn't there when he died.

If I could offer any advice, I suggest calling Hospice. They are absolute professional about aiding the dying and their families in the process of letting go of this life. They have wonderful people with years of experience. They gave me greater confidence in managing my husband's pain. I also attended their grief program after he died.

My heart goes out to you, Sandra. I pray God gives you the support you need to not only help your dad but also accept and process your own emotions and grief. Death is a part of our life that we don't really know how to prepare for but it can be a time of great growth. Growth in loving better, trusting God more, accepting yourself and your emotions.

You don't need to berate yourself into burying these emotions. You obviously love your dad and your heart is aching already. Let the emotions come and trust God with your family. Maybe they need to know that THEY aren't the only one who is feeling so sad.

Blessings, Kathryn

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