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Final goodbyes


In dying, we learn how to live

June 16,  2022

It’s a precious gift to be there to say goodbye. But when the actual moment comes, it can be hard to know what to do or where to start. Maybe we are thrown by the beeping ICU screens. Or maybe we don’t know how to begin unwinding a conflict that has been years in the making. Sometimes there’s plenty of time to say all that is needed, and the words flow with ease. Many times, though, we struggle for words in those precious moments. As Stephen Jenkinson, who has written extensively about grief, observed: We often stumble into our dying as amateurs.

I encourage folks to start with what is on their hearts. What needs to be said? What needs to be heard? Dr. Ira Byock, a leading palliative care physician and author, offers four simple phrases that clarify what often needs to be expressed. I offer them as prompts to get communication flowing. They are: I love you, forgive me, I forgive you and thank you. And when distance or pandemic precautions make in-person conversations impossible, writing a letter or making a video can be just as effective.

I remember one mother and daughter. The mom was riddled with cancer, barely clinging to life, sleeping all the time. The daughter — her caregiver — was glued to the bedside. I would sit and pray with them day after day: the mother refusing to die, the daughter refusing to leave. After two weeks of this tug-of-war, their story spilled out. The daughter’s tears punctuating the torrent of her confessions about the fights and the frustration. I excused myself, but I don’t think she noticed, bent over her mom, caressing her with her tears of loss and regret. Forgiveness was their unfinished business. The next day, the mother passed peacefully.

With another family, it was the daughter who was waiting to die. The doctors kept saying her time was short, but she held on for her mother’s visa to be processed. After a 15-hour flight and an Uber from the airport, her mother was by her side to say, “I love you. Goodbye.” The daughter passed that night.

It is true that none of us know the day or hour when God will call us home. But keeping vigil at the bedsides of those dying has inspired me to live as one prepared to die. It has also clarified the kind of relationships that I want to have while I am living. I want my loved ones to hear that I love them. I want them to be clear about how grateful I am for their presence in my life. For those whom I have done wrong, I want to make amends and ask for their forgiveness — now, not on my deathbed. I want to live free of old grudges and toxic emotions. I realize that the life I live will be better when I live ready to say goodbye.

Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder, serving as a Presbyterian chaplain at LAC+USC Medical Center, Los Angeles

Today’s Focus: In dying, final goodbyes

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Laurisha Tolliver, Gift Processing Clerk, Relationship & Development Operations, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Melonee Tubb, Associate, Financial Aid, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Lord, you know pain and loss better than anyone. Come to those in mourning and let them feel your presence. We know that you are close to the brokenhearted and comfort those who mourn. Help them to let you into their grief, to give you their anger and doubt. In your name. Amen.

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