Love's Goodbye

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In my job as a minister I have watched many people die. As awful as this sounds, there is a sameness to the process that, with time, serves to insulate you from the terribleness of it all. Unlike first responders and medical personnel who are called upon to actually interact with the one expiring, a minister is a concerned witness whose task is more directed toward the survivors than the one passing.

This is not to say that there is no role to play in helping someone who is dying and in need of spiritual comfort and reassurance, but most of my energy is usually required to help the family deal with the tragedy at hand. From this vantage point I have noted that most people caught up in a death watch (a period of time that sees the shutting down of the critically ill or injured person's body, one system at a time until life ends) rarely synchronize their emotions and energy with the reality of what is actually taking place. It's as if those who are observing the death process are driving down a one way street but doing so in the wrong direction.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, the "watchers" often refuse to accept the cues discreetly given by the physicians treating the patient (e.g. that recovery may not be possible) or the very plain evidence of imminent death that the deterioration of their loved one presents to them on a daily basis. I understand that talk of future plans and continued prayer for full recovery are more often symptoms of denial than expressions of faith, but at some point it becomes healthier for both the person at death's door and the one seeing them go, to say goodbye.

I say this because too many times in these situations the people involved miss a final opportunity to express their actual feelings, and end up with a general sense of regret and emptiness when the inevitable happens. It always amazes me to observe the sense of surprise that people exhibit when a person who has suffered a long slow path of degeneration actually dies. It's as if the acknowledgement of the looming reality would somehow bring it to pass sooner, so they deny its possibility by trying to maintain cheerful conversations about the weather and various family events, even travel plans for upcoming vacations, thinking that if they maintain "normalcy" they maintain life.

Everything comes into focus, however, when those concerned finally admit that in a critical health or injury situation, death is the probable outcome, and it usually arrives sooner than we think or want it to. When this is acknowledged the priorities usually take care of themselves and the principal players can finally begin to say those things that fit the occasion, not talk about matters that no longer mean anything to those who will shortly be separated. What is necessary at this point is the exchange of goodbye words between those who won't see each other in this world again.

How comforting it is to be told that you have been loved, that you have been important or inspiring or cherished or a blessing or faithful or the best...

How life affirming to spend the last moments, days or months exchanging expressions of appreciation, forgiveness, prayer, laughter, and mutual assurances that God will care for each where each is going.

I feel so sorry for the man, Jesus, as He tried in vain to say goodbye to His Apostles and friends knowing that He would soon leave them. He so needed them to comfort Him as a man, to reassure Him of their love and gratitude for all He had done for them, but to no avail. He wept in the garden alone, and went to the cross by Himself with no tender touch of sympathy or sorrow to ease His isolation.

Jesus' experience with His Apostles highlights the problem when one is close to death. No one wants to share in it. The talk of "life going on" and the fixation on "normalcy" during these times are a cover for survivors who do not want to experience any part of death, even if it is not their own. Saying goodbye, however, makes you a partner in the experience of dying. It confirms its inevitability. It's like driving someone to the airport for an early flight. You may not be the one flying but you have to experience much of the discomfort and inconvenience that goes into an early morning departure time. In the same way, saying goodbye invests you into the dying process and forces you to admit that there will be a "departure." But here's the thing, next to a cure or complete recovery, saying goodbye is what the one facing death needs more than all else. This person requires someone to help them face a frightening reality, and the process of saying goodbye is love's way of letting go for both people caught up in life's most daunting experience.

The pain of Jesus' lonely death was mitigated by the fact that He knew what His death would accomplish (the redemption of mankind - Romans 3:24), and He looked forward to His and our resurrection (Hebrews 12:2-3). The pain of our own death is also softened by the knowledge that someone will accompany us with love's goodbye to its door, and we'll awaken to Jesus' welcoming embrace never to say goodbye again.