Saying goodbye helps
free the dying
As a chaplain, I deal with dying and grieving. Recently, I talked with an adult child about letting go -- giving her mother permission to die. She called her mom long-distance, released her and felt a deep peace. We are not taught to say goodbye; we don't know what to say. So here are the Final Four things to say when people are dying.
1. I love you.
2. Thank you.
3. Forgive me, I forgive you.
4. It's OK to go ("You can go now," "You did a good job," "We will be OK," "We'll see each other again," "You did your best," "Go to God").
Giving someone permission to die is easier if love, gratitude and forgiveness have been spoken. While saying the above, touch them, hold a hand, touch the shoulder, kiss them -- whatever is comfortable for you. Remember, the dying can still hear even if they can't respond.
Sometimes the person and the family are ready for death, but avoid talking about it or try to cheer each other up with false hope.
Sometimes the person is ready to die, but the relatives aren't; often it's the child who's been away. Whether out of denial, guilt or ignorance from not being around to see the daily situation, he or she will insist on more medical measures.
Sometimes the person is ready to die, but isn't sure about the family, so keeps hanging on.
Sometimes the relatives are ready because they're exhausted, but the person keeps fighting to live for a variety of reasons, perhaps the above four items of unfinished business. Even if you say the Final Four, take your cue from the dying. A few actually do best denying all the way. When you're the one who's dying, help your loved ones by saying the Final Four goodbye.
Dying can take a long time. I used to think that once food was held back, death was days away. But it can take weeks or a month, because in the process of dying the body slows down and doesn't need much nourishment. The patient is not "starving." Mentally, the person also starts withdrawing from the world, so he or she doesn't feel hurt or afraid.
"Pulling the plug" is withdrawing life support. Often it's taking the big, uncomfortable ventilating (oxygen) tube out of the mouth and throat. Death can take minutes or hours. Sometimes people just stop breathing. Sometimes there is gasping, but it's like a balloon losing air. They're not suffering.
What are people most afraid of in dying? Pain and being alone. Palliative or comfort care through drugs (morphine), oxygen, music, lighting and other procedures addresses the pain. Faith and family support deal with the aloneness.
When people are ill or dying, they cope much better if they have personal faith or family support. If they have both faith and family, they're even stronger. If they have faith and a family with faith, it's joyful no matter what happens.
A memorial service is often called "a celebration for the life of." A Christian funeral is mourning with celebration. We feel the loss, but we celebrate the person's life, love and legacy. We take heart in the promises of scripture.
Jesus' death and resurrection opened the way to heaven. Death will be no more; neither will there be tears or crying. Forever with God is life beyond human imagination. We will be face to face with the One who loves us most, and we will see each other again. We get to go home, our real home.
The Rev. Sharon Inake is a United Church of Christ minister and chaplain at Arcadia Retirement Residence.