Fearing Death, Dying Alone

by Bill Holmes

He was for most of his 101 years a loving and beloved Methodist pastor. His wife of 50-plus years had died long ago. His bride of 19 years now sat stoically beside his bed, almost as if she did not appreciate the gravity of the situation. He had sustained a right brain stroke that in all likelihood would end his life. Or was her apparent stoicism actually her awareness that the long-awaited end was near? She had, after all, known death well as she had buried her first husband and two sons. Her now failing husband’s progeny, likewise, had preceded him in death.

Even though nothing medically heroic was being done, he lingered for a week, quite agitated and confused. His wife, now worn and frail, could spend only a few hours per day with him. Various sitters were with him at all times. Late in the evening of the seventh day, his restlessness ceased, he fell quiet, and shortly thereafter took his last breath. Only the sitter, a stranger to him, was present.

Those who live “to a ripe old age” are more likely to die in isolation because family and friends are often unable to be present for long stretches due to their own aging and health problems.

But others die alone even though we as caregivers try to be with them. I see many tired looking faces with drooping eyelids sitting beside hospital beds, a scene no doubt oft repeated in the homes of the dying. How often do I hear, “I left the room to get a snack, and when I came back, she was gone.” It is as though the dying one has said, “I don’t want to die in front of you.” I did not truly understand and appreciate this phenomenon until it became my experience as well in the deaths of my parents.

Frequently death comes unexpectedly away from the presence of our families. After a sudden death by accident or heart attack, I often hear: “I just wish I could have been there to say, ‘I love you.’”

I stood with the husband and son at the bedside of an eighty-year-old woman as she took her last breath. I quickly checked her pulse and waited a few more seconds before saying to her husband, “She is gone, John. She has departed this life.” His reply came with a puzzled look on his face and his arms raised high. “Just like that? You mean that is it? Just like that?” Months later the son expressed regret that his father had been at the bedside, as he was still struggling with the image of that last breath.

Sometimes being in the presence of death and dying is more than we can endure. This is understandable, for death is never pretty, the notion of a “good death” not withstanding. Being with a loved one as the last breath is taken brings forth our deepest emotions, our memories—both good and bad—and feelings that cannot be verbalized.

Being with the dying reminds us also of the reality of our own mortality, for we also must one day take our turn. Each of us handles such thoughts in different ways. Some must understandably leave the bedside before becoming overwhelmed. This is a normal response, not a weakness to regret.

Fears are a normal part of facing death. As we deal with our fears and the fears of the dying one, we have the promises of God’s presence. Long ago the psalmist was no doubt still experiencing fear in the face of death even as he spoke of not fearing “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Likewise Psalm 139 speaks of God’s presence no matter where our journeys take us. “I come to the end—I am still with you” (Psalm 139:18b).

This article was previously published on Church Health Reader through a column by Bill Holmes, Interfacing.

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