2011-09-29 / Worship

Being ‘ready to die’ is easier to accept than when a loved one ‘wants to die’


As a hospice chaplain I often hear a patient say that he or she is ready to die, that he or she has made peace with his or her maker/ creator, and is ready for the trip home. While this is difficult for loved ones to hear, it is far easier to hear than that same loved one saying that he or she wants to die.

Those wanting to die and those ready to die – they both are ready for the same outcome but the mindsets are totally different. Ready to die means that they have had the chance to say goodbye; they have given, prayed for, and received forgiveness; and they feel that their life is complete.

Wanting to die is normally driven by suffering caused by unrelenting pain, normally physically and/or emotionally. When we hear someone say they want to die our immediate reaction is, “Don’t say that! You cannot possibly mean that!” But we have to remember, it is not about us.

Too often I have sat with cancer patients for whom the morphine and other pain killers were just not doing the job. Colon and stomach cancer patients who were continually throwing up. Brain cancer patients who were suffering through pain worse than the worst migraine. COPD patients who could not get enough oxygen to say a sentence.

And family members would sit there, not wanting to let go. Telling the patient that they needed him or her to not die, saying that they did not know how they would live without their dying loved one being there.

Or they sit there in total disbelief that their loved one was dying, harassing every doctor to find some new experimental procedure or some new drug, regardless of the pain it would cause their loved one.

As a hospice chaplain, I have sat with many family members who just sat in silent disbelief. At a time like that, all any of us can do is be present with the patient and with the family. To let them talk, to air their fears and their concerns, to help them come to grips with what is happening and to try to cherish the moments that are left.

When a loved one has reached a point in their life when pain, illness, or suffering of some kind has gnawed away all their will to live, we are faced with a mixture of emotions and feelings, some of which my make us very uncomfortable. We may be angry at our loved one for giving up, or at God for seemingly being absent.

Fear, failure, resentment, anxiety, sadness, or self-pity may rear up inside our heads and hearts and catch us off guard. We may feel guilty for being impatient or feel relief that we are not the ones suffering. It is likely we may get caught up in denying our feelings because we believe they are wrong.

Ours is an existence of contrasts: darkness and light, hope and despair, life and death. They all weave the fabric of our lives and serve as a cradle for our faith in God. People of all religious traditions are taught to revere life and to protect it from harm, so it is understandable that we react with fear or distress to a loved one who expresses a desire to die. With such a strong emphasis on the goodness and beauty of life, we find it hard to accept a desire for death, which we often perceive as the polar opposite of life.

But death is really a continuum on life’s journey and a reality we must come to terms with if we are to live, and die, as whole persons. We must come face to face with our own mortality if we are to walk meaningfully with a loved one on a journey of suffering.

In the end, love is all we really have, or need, to offer others. As a source of care and hope, we are more than agents of change in our loved one’s life – we are instruments in the hands of a loving God. Always remember that the spirit and wisdom of your loved one were crafted by those same hands.

Death is not the extinguishing of the light to let darkness come, it is extinguishing of the light because the new dawn has arisen.

(If you have any questions about this article or about resources in the local community you can contact the author, Rev. Glen Kohlhagen, at the Washington Presbyterian Church at 706-678-7511. Rev. Kohlhagen facilitates a bereavement group sponsored by Wills Memorial Hospital on the second Wednesday of each month at 1 p.m. in the hospital library/conference room.)

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