From Restlessness to Peace by William H Griffith
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer—Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
Death brings you a choice.
It can lead you
to the edge of the abyss.
Or you can build a bridge
that will span the chasm.
-Earl A. Grollman
JOHN WAS SIXTY-FOUR YEARS OLD and dying, and he was anxious. He asked to talk with a pastoral counselor on a Saturday evening, so I was called. I arrived at 8:30 p.m. and was greeted by his wife and introduced to his daughter, son, and sister-in-law. The living room had become a storage space for the bedroom furniture that had been moved so that a hospital bed could be set up for John in the more comfortable and familiar surroundings of his home.
I was immediately escorted into John’s room. He was awake and made eye contact with me as I walked toward his bed. He slowly lifted his thin arm and extended his hand to shake mine. I introduced myself, and he thanked me for coming. I asked him what it was that he was concerned about. His wife started to leave the room so that we could talk, but, looking at her, John said, “You can stay.” She sat on the other side of the hospital bed and held his hand.
We again made eye contact, and John said to me, “I don’t know what to do.”
I didn’t want to assume that I knew what he was referring to, nor did I want to guess, so I responded by asking, “What to do about what, John?”
He closed his eyes and in a soft, weak voice said, “Is there something I need to do to die?”
I said, “John, I’ll bet you have been the kind of guy who always wanted to get the job done the right way.” His wife smiled, and John nodded in agreement. “We’ve been raised to be doers, haven’t we John?” He nodded again. He had his eyes closed, and after some moments of silence he opened them and looked at me. I asked, “Before you die, John, is there anything at all that you feel you’d like to do or anyone you’d like to see?”
Softly he replied, “No.”
Again there was silence among the three of us until I said, “Well, then the hardest thing you have to do is wait, and it’s my guess that since you’re a doer, waiting isn’t something you enjoy. We doers want to get on with what must be done. Your wife and family share this frustration with you. Although they do things for you by providing you with food and drink, what they might not know is that what you really appreciate is what your wife is doing right now—sitting by your bed and holding your hand and being with you.” He nodded slightly, and a tear formed at the corner of his eye. His wife handed him a tissue, and he touched it to the tear.
“This isn’t a time to do, John; it’s a time to be,” I said. “Being is everything. Right now being with you is all your family can do for you. Being with you is what God promises also. Are you aware that God loves you and is with you?”
“Yes,” he said.
Then I offered, “John, that’s what the wonderful promise is in the twenty-third Psalm, where we read, `Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me’ (23:4). It doesn’t say that at such a time the shepherd—God—will do anything for us; it simply says that he will be with us. At the time of our lives when we can’t do for ourselves and we face this mystery we call death, we can claim the promise of our God being with us. All I can do for you is be with you and remind you of that promise. All you can do is claim that promise as being true for you. Do you claim that promise?”
John’s eyes opened, and he said, “Yes, I do.” His wife now had tears in her eyes.
I asked John if he would like me to pray with him. He quickly agreed. I offered a prayer, then spoke some parting words of blessing and hope and left the bedroom.
As I stood in the living room by the front door, John’s wife apologized for the mess of furniture that was stacked in the room. I reassured her that it was a wonderful symbol of her love and devotion to her husband. The cluttered room spoke loudly that she would do anything she could to make John’s last days as comfortable as possible. I affirmed the love and support the family was providing for John, and I reminded them that their being with him was everything they could do.
As I turned to leave, John’s wife put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Thank you. He seems so much more at peace now.”
As I left the house and reached for the keys to my truck, I kept hearing those words in my head, and I marveled at what had happened during my brief, thirty-minute visit with John: A dying man’s restlessness had been transformed into a new understanding and sense of contentment.
Lessons for Caregivers
When the dying person has had all of her wishes, desires, or hopes fulfilled, she can then become frustrated with waiting for the end to come. That waiting is in itself an experience for which we are so little prepared. It isn’t that life has no experiences of waiting that teach us the fundamentals. We’ve all waited in the long checkout line in the grocery store or taken a number at the license bureau, but that waiting is simply a delay that keeps us from something else that is more exciting. Waiting to die is the ultimate “check-out” line, and we’ve never done that before.
What we do once we have entered that “check-out” line will depend, to a great degree, on how we have lived and what we have valued. John valued his family, and they were present to share the waiting with him. His religious beliefs provided him with sufficient assurance and faith that there was something more beyond the ultimate “check-out” line. He was able to verbalize this belief, and when a dying person gives verbal expression to his faith, he is not only validating the value of the faith by which he lived but also communicating to loved ones a state of readiness to die. Is it any wonder that John was “so much more at peace” after verbalizing his readiness?
Dying people have feelings just like everyone else, and they also have a need to share those feelings. Often their restlessness during their final days is in some way an attempt to communicate an unfulfilled need at a time when their every need must be met by someone else. They must be fed, bathed, medicated, and even turned over in bed, and their physical inactivity may so define their limitations for us, their caregivers, that we might fail to see or sense their struggle and their need for help at the emotional level. A dying person’s journey will not seem as lonely if he has someone with whom he can talk and who sees to his emotional needs.
Remember that caring for the spouse and other family members of the dying is also important. Sometimes that may be as simple as pointing to the inconvenience of a cluttered room as an affirming symbol of the extent of the family’s love for the dying. Family members need to be encouraged, and their caring needs to be affirmed.[1-4]